The ticket-selling started at 6 p.m. Friday evening for the 1979 edition of 64 Funny Cars. Race fans would buy their tickets and then camp out in a huge parking area, waiting for dawn to then enter the race track.
Photo above: For the 64 Funny Car event in 1979, it was an all-out media, blitz including a half dozen cities in Canada, bus posters in downtown Seattle and these billboards located throughout the Puget Sound. One of the billboards was mounted on a trailer and set off near the race way for the month of July, causing a huge stir.
The Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Funny Cars came to several of the 64 Funny Car shows in Seattle. 'Big Mike' brought his Chevy Vega to the 'Big One.' with Charlie Therwanger wheeling this pretty racer.
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF RUSS GRIFFITH
We sold tickets until 8 p.m. on Saturday night, and during all those 26 hours there were long lines everywhere the entire time ... and all night long. We all knew at the time that this was the biggest event ever held at Seattle International Raceway.
The logistics of all of this would really get bad later that evening as the Funny Cars and crews were having huge problems accessing their own pit areas. This particular evening at SIR was truly a "10-pound event" in a "five-pound race track." The only real way to describe it was "Sardineville."
I remember many times during that evening hearing Bill Doner announcing and calling for security to separate the crowd so the racers could work their way back to their own pit areas. And, of course, the staging lanes were just about unmovable with people. It wasn't the usual four to six people deep, it was more like 50 deep.
The mass of people would jam up everything so the race would have to be halted to move them out of certain areas. The audience size was beyond anyone's comprehension.
Just getting the cars forward from the lanes and into their burnout areas was getting harder to accomplish as the evening wore on. Once the motors lit up, the nitro fumes and the flames from the headers had a way of making some fans scatter with tears in their eyes.
Of course, that dreaded 11 p.m. curfew in Seattle is always looming over these type of problems. The problems of a major crowd and a cluttered race was present the entire evening. And, of course, there was the potential for someone getting hurt, which would be the last thing we would need.
Fortunately the race was completed, and generally went incident free well before the SIR curfew. With that large of a crowd it maxed out just about everything throughout the entire facility. Concessions, rest rooms and all the roads were overly taxed the whole evening.
It had to be frustrating for the racers as they attempted to compete. There had to be a lot of patience shown, and the racers did an excellent job of that. It was quite obvious to everyone there that SIR had a big problem going on with this size crowd but everyone seemed to want to see the event get completed ... and that is exactly what happened. The largest one-day independent drag racing event ever (or so they say) was in 1979 at SIR.
Now comes the really fun part. After all those hours and hours of selling tickets, now it becomes time for everyone to leave. There was no hope of that going smoothly. Although there was lots of security and King County sheriffs assisting the egress traffic, it was just impossible to move many cars from all the areas within the track. It took until the wee hours of the next morning to get the bulk of the cars out to the highway.
The traffic was so snarled that after the event had subsided Doner didn't leave the track until 6 in the morning. On his way out he saw four young guys wandering down the road, arm in arm, as one shouted, "One, two, three" and the rest yelled, "64 Funny Cars!" It was an event that just captivated the audience, and so they just couldn't wait for the next one.
Another example of the impacts of this monstrous event with such a huge crowd was the SIR concessionaire, Ron Ness of Tacoma. He was found sleeping under a tree on the office lawn early Sunday morning. He had worked over two solid days with very little sleep in preparation of the "Big One," and then it finally just came to an end.
"I saw that lawn under that tree and it looked so inviting with as little sleep as I have had over the last few days, so I just sat down for a few moments and out I went," Ness said.
Events like this are taxing on everyone.
Not many know this, but that huge event in '79 had problems well before it even got started. I had purchased some outdoor billboards from a Seattle company to promote the event during the entire month of July. While I was at the billboard company I took notice of a portable unit they had on a trailer which could be towed out to different sites and then displayed. I thought that would be perfect to park near the entrance to SIR adjacent to the highway with all the ongoing traffic.
I talked to them about it and they agreed to put one of our huge 64 Funny Car billboard posters on it and then park it for the entire month near the entrance of the raceway. I thought that was an excellent way to help promote our event over the weeks ahead. The Washington State Patrol, however, did not think it was so cool.
After several weeks of the trailer sitting near the highway, there had been off and on reaction about their disdain of my idea. Finally, at one point they said, "Either get the sign away from the highway or there will not be an event."
The chief of the Washington State Patrol even called the owner of the billboard company at his home on Sunday a week before the event with a terse statement about the whole affair. The pressure was really building now.
Whoa! Needless to say the billboard company came and removed the trailer, taking it back to their shop. It was a good idea, and we did get a lot of exposure while that trailer was positioned on the shoulder of the highway for most of that month, but I'll guarantee that having a sign like that won't happen again.
In downtown Seattle, there are double-length buses cruising around the city. I did an ad buy on the sides of those buses just to cause some talk around the city about 64 Funny Cars. The signboards simply said, "How many funny cars?" in huge letters across the two full-length buses. There was nothing more; just that phrase. This event was a promoters' dream to do the advertising for, and never would have made sense for the NHRA Northwest Nationals.
As part of the promotional plans we talked with NAPA stores, and all of them in Western Washington had discount coupons. Plus, the NAPA Distribution Center gave out coupons to those locations every day leading up to the event. They worked hard with their involvement, including all the employees talking with customers about the event. NAPA was a wonderful sponsor.
It's really hard to now imagine what all took place back in that golden era. There simply hasn't been anything to compare to the earlier days of the sport. In my view, the modern-day, high-tech, aero-designed Funny Car we see today just wouldn't fit the picture that took place back then.
Those were plentiful times back then where the cost of competing was on a whole different level, allowing a crew of one or two to maintain a Funny Car team.
Big-time sponsorship involvement was just associated with a few cars then, and certainly not like the driving force they are today.
You just have to wonder if all of this is good or bad as the success of this 64 Funny Car event was on such a high level, over that time period, why in the world change it? It's
probably a question that will be asked for a lot of years because people in the sport will still be talking about when the crowd had to be shoehorned into the race track in Seattle.
Doner used his ingenuity, moxie and a lot of boldness to establish this totally different approach of presenting the sport of drag racing in a completely different way, and there is certainly no question on how successful he was. I certainly am not the first to say it: Thanks, Doner. You are the best!
Editor's note: "Part 6: 1988 brought the final 64 Funny Cars and Force with the long haul" will be published in May.