The traditional fire-up was as exciting for the race fans as it was for the racers. The crowd would do a countdown until the roar of the motors would drown them out.
Photo above: It was a "fiberglass forest" of 64 Funny Cars, as Doner so eloquently stated in his hyped-up radio commercials.
The owner of Firebird Raceway near Boise, Idaho, took his young son Scott to the Seattle event. Bill New later that year debuted a Funny Car event of his own that was an instant success.
Jungle Jim Liberman, along with Jungle Pam, was a huge hit for the West Coast race fans at the first 64 Funny Car event in Seattle. Jungle made the long tow from Pennsylvania to be part of this historic event.
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF RUSS GRIFFITH
That would never work, as you have to give fans the feel of what they will miss if they don't go to the event. You've got to put them on the edge of their seats wherever they are, at that very moment, so they are ready for the big-league action coming up. That was Bill Doner-style, make no mistake about it.
Doner even taped part of one of the commercials at Portland's event. He had the entire crowd yell, "SIXTY FOUR FUNNY CARS," so he could use it in the Seattle commercials.
Talk about smart moves. Everyone in that Portland facility knew about the larger event coming up in just one week, less than three hours up Interstate 5. Crafty, eh? That's Doner. Of course, there just happened to be advance tickets available at the Portland event for Seattle ... tickets anyone? What a brilliant promoter.
The "Big One" in Seattle contained more excitement than most people can handle. That is where the famous Doner radio commercials came in. Phrases like "fiberglass forest," "trick traction compound," "under the lights," and, of course, "ground pounding."
Then there was this one: After a creative description of a Mustang II Funny Car comes, "pour in high-explosive fuel, cap it quick – then climb into the driver's seat and say, What in the world am I doing here?"
With his lightning-fast delivery he "painted a picture for your mind" so you could imagine the colorful-intensity of what was going to take place at SIR.
All of these descriptive phrases came from his commercials telling the folks, "You gotta BE THERE!" One commercial even warned, "You will regret seeing the Monday morning headlines having not attended the event." It was mass hyperbole for sure, but oh, so very, very effective.
The hyped-up Doner commercials were very controversial, but they also were very successful. If you didn't like them, you talked about them a lot. If you did like them, you talked about them a lot. That's a perfect example of success when people are talking about your brand all the time.
An example of one of the "media blasts" with these exotic commercials was in Portland after the 1973 contract was signed with the city on PIR. The big rock station in town back then was KISN. Doner and I set up a meeting with KISN general manager Bill Failing to lay out the media buys for the summer. When it actually came down to locking in the buys Doner said, "Can we buy a spot an hour?" (That really means, "Will you allow one advertiser to dominate your airwaves.")
Failing said yes, and Doner said, "We want to buy one spot an hour for 10 days prior to our event." Failing just about fell off his chair. Talk about massive saturation of the market, nobody does that ... well, almost nobody.
We bought a few other radio spots there in Portland, but the KISN buy was targeted perfectly and quite frankly, massively. For a week and a half it seemed like all you heard was Doner and these wild and crazy hyped radio commercials. What a huge introduction to the Doner commercials. They were the talk of the town, no matter where you went. People loved them ... well, most people did.
At the time, there weren't any advertisers coming close to buying so many radio spots in a market, so Portland was "bombed" with drag racing coming to PIR, in big-league style.
There was nothing conservative about Doner and his approach to promoting events. He had an exciting product that he had confidence in, and he let the whole world know about – over and over again. He certainly was out there blowing his horn and in his very own "rapid-delivery" voice.
Later, when the NHRA national event was to return to SIR in 1988, I insisted on using the Doner commercials for their events. They didn't go along with that very easily, but I kept the pressure on, and they finally agreed to go along with that approach. I felt very strongly that drag racing and Doner ads were so very important to be together that it was paramount for the return of the NHRA to Seattle.
To this day, I still hear mentions about those old commercials from different local sports broadcasters in Seattle. The energy in them fired up those that were looking for exciting action, and 64 Funny Cars was certainly that. Here it is, over 20 years ago when the Doner ads were massively covering the airwaves in the Puget Sound area, and there still are those who remember them. By the way, they never mention the ads (after Doner) for the NHRA national event.
Over the years the event drew praise from the who's who of the sport: The legendary
Midwest promoter Ben Christ, who ran a Funny Car race of his own at US 30 back east, had heard about the famous Seattle event, so he had to see it for himself. Standing on the SIR starting line in his lime green pants, shirt and white shoes, he said, "I've never seen anything like it. Rock bands, thousands and thousands of people, and then they line all the cars up on the race track and have some guy leap over all of them on a motorcycle with a hand glider attached."
Oh, there was that,too.
Don Prudhomme, in a recent interview in Pomona, told an audience, "THAT was some real serious ground pounding in Seattle." The Snake loved coming to the Northwest for 64 Funny Cars, and so did a whole list of other front-line stars.
The largest 64 Funny Car event ever held at SIR was the NAPA Regal Ride extravaganza in 1979. After 26 straight hours of ticket sales, beginning at 6 p.m. Friday, the attendance finally ended up with over 26,000 jammed into the raceway on a Saturday evening.
The overflow traffic backed up for over five miles on the local highway. It's the only time that I have seen in my lifetime where ticket sellers could actually work two different shifts, with sleep in between, for the same one-day event – and we needed every ticket seller we could get.
My efforts were mostly involved with security and ticketing back in 1979 at that event. With that big of a crowd coming to SIR it would take a "shoehorn" to get them all in there. In those days the drive-up ticket booths were located on the entrance road to SIR. In early afternoon a dilemma took place, the parking lots were jammed throughout the facility, and we had many hours left before the first round.
Then, finally, we had complete and total gridlock. The cars backed up to the ticket booths, and no more selling could take place. "Now what do I do?" I wondered.
There was a whole new set of problems than I had ever dealt with at SIR. I kept thinking to myself that these new problems will require new thinking to solve or deal with them.
With race fans waiting in their cars in lines that seemed to never end, I knew there had to be some way to allow the congestion to subside so there could be some movement. It was multiple lanes wide and solid from the parking lots nearly to the local highway, and that had a reported five miles of backup. There just has to be a safety valve here somewhere.
I grabbed a motorcycle and had security line up cars behind me in the left (exit) lane. As I rode the motorcycle straight to the pit area the cars would follow along as I knew there was lots of room in there. I did that same plan over and over again with hundreds and hundreds of cars. They would buy their tickets and then line up behind me as I escorted them directly into the pits with the motorcycle. They must have felt like they were VIPs getting an escorted trip directly into the pit area.
It just seemed to me like that was the only way to solve the massive backup. I had been involved with several 64 Funny Car events over the years, and nothing even came close to this one.
Editor's note -- "Part 5 – Getting them into the event was only part of the problem" will be published in April.