Usually held at some popular tourist city in the west, there are several days of agenda presented by the NHRA outlining plans, problems and directions for the upcoming racing season. The annual gathering, usually three days in length, allows all the national-event track operators to share their successes, ideas and meet any new NHRA personnel.
We learned during the official meetings that 1994 was going to be Don Prudhomme's Last Strike Tour, as the "Snake" was retiring from driving to become a team owner. He would continue driving at all the NHRA National events on the tour that year but would continue to own his team for the future.
Gene Beaver was in the left lane of the Funny Car final as parts and pieces of the Snake's car went everywhere after the explosion.
Two emergency trucks were right on the scene once the Snake's Funny Car came to a halt. Prudhomme was rushed to an area hospital with minor injuries.
ABOVE PHOTOS COURTESY OF RUSS GRIFFITH
There was lots of discussion on what the tracks would do for a special presentation during their events as the tour wound its way around the USA. There was to be a plaque here or there and someone suggested a rocking chair or maybe a motorcycle that he could wheel around. I felt I needed to do something special, but what in the world would it be?
I had first seen Prudhomme when I was a crew member on the Northwind Top Fuel car in 1965 during the "Smokers' Meet" in Bakersfield. I was just a young 22-year-old kid doing the grunt work on the Northwind team back then. I had heard and read a lot about the sport of drag racinh, but I couldn't get enough information. The Snake was making headlines back then as one of the big guns on the West Coast, even winning the Bakersfield event a year or so earlier.
In the early 1970s, Prudhomme would race at Seattle International Raceway for Bill Doner. Doner had an event called the Northwest National Open that included an open field of Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars. The risk of producing an event like this was huge as the Northwest National Open was always scheduled in early May.
Doner told me a story about him lying in bed the night before one of these events with that famous Seattle rain pounding down on the roof of his house. Who says promoters don't take risks? Probably not the best night of sleep Doner has ever had.
As was Doner's style, he would bring the best in the sport to Seattle. The Top Fuel and Funny Car fields were socked full of the big names, and of course Prudhomme was often included. In those days he had transferred over to the world of Funny Cars instead of his familiar location within the ranks of Top Fuel.
No doubt, Prudhomme was certainly one of the most popular drag racers to compete at SIR. He always had a class organization and would always run with the best of them. The media seemed to cover him well when he raced throughout the Northwest.
This early event was several years before I went to work for Doner but I'd heard the story about the wild fireball Funny Car in the lights at SIR. Prudhomme had blown up his
Hot Wheels funny car and flew through the quarter-mile lights in a ball of fire. As I recall, it was in the final round and the incident destroyed just about everything except Prudhomme. I had heard that Prudhomme was very fortunate to even walk away from the dramatic explosion which destroyed the race car, along with the motor. I could only imagine what that must have all looked like.
Those NHRA meetings were really pretty much cookie-cutter as the plans and direction were all laid out well before the meetings took place. An individual track operator could agree or disagree with a certain concept, but things seemed to continue forward as previously planned by the NHRA. Different than the baseball owners, we really had very little input into the guidance of the NHRA tour.
There were often graphs comparing all the events to each other, which allowed us to see what the other markets were doing. At that point, the NHRA Nationals at Seattle International Raceway had just finished its sixth year, and comparing it to a similar sized market across the USA was very important to me.
I always knew that the Seattle facility had such a terrible physical layout and what worked in a similar market might not be feasible for the single-entrance at SIR. I always gained some knowledge by attending the NHRA meetings but, as mentioned, the possibility for assisting the NHRA in their agenda was very limited. As always, they had a plan and pretty much stuck by it.
Better yet, to me, the best part of the meetings always seemed to be in the evenings when the operators got together in a suite for open discussion without the NHRA. That was the place to learn what others were doing in their respective markets. There wasn't any place for me to go for Race Track 101, so discussing the latest ideas with those in the know was where I always wanted to be. The knowledge I gained from those evening meetings was priceless and certainly helped me as I learned more about what worked and what didn't work at different race sites around the country.
Hours and hours of discussions with John Bandimere of Denver and the late Vinnie Napp of Englishtown, two of the best, would guide me along the way and direct me into new ideas and helpful hints. I can't thank the two of them enough, along with several others, for their guidance and their honesty in business. These guys "lived in the trenches" of being a track operator and were well-respected within the industry. The impacts they had on my career in the sport were huge. Learning by trial and error can obviously be very expensive.
I wanted to be conservative in my approach to new events, but I had a major market in the Seattle-Tacoma-Vancouver, B.C. area to draw from and I needed to take advantage of that wonderful situation.
The political side of the sport never existed in those suite meetings with fellow track operators. It was the free flow of plans, thoughts and ideas. To me, it was a wonderful venue to speak openly about your business and know that everything that was said was the truth. What worked well at one track could be shared by all of those in attendance.