This weekend the US Nationals are being staged at Indianapolis Raceway Park (we’re still calling it that) as the event has been for decades. There’s another important historical anniversary that will pass far more quietly and get little to no mention at Indy. 2012 marks the 40th anniversary of the greatest group protest drag race ever held, the National Challenge ’72 which was a massive race that pulled virtually all of the star power away from the US Nationals, paid the largest professional purses in the history of the sport to that point, and (although never openly admitted) forced the NHRA to change the way they paid professional racers.
Don Garlits and Richard Petty are the only two guys in American racing history to successfully gather and direct a large group of professional racers to openly defy their overlords. For Petty it was the boycott of the 1969 Talladega 500 because of concerns over the tires on NASCAR stock cars failing and putting drivers in precarious positions due to the high speeds achieved on the new track. Petty gathered the racers, explained his position and that he was going to leave with all of his guys and he recommended that they do the same. Crazy thing. They did. The race was still run because a crop of other drivers willingly climbed into whatever they could, for a shot at the money and the glory. The same was true in the case of National Challenge ’72, which was run directly against the then 18th running of the US Nationals. The NHRA race still happened, but Garlits had all the star power at his event. We say “his” event, but in reality Garlits needed help. Not getting the talent, but getting the greenbacks. And the greenbacks were the whole point.
As Don Garlits told us, “The race was driven by the fact that drag racing was a laughing stock when compared to NASCAR and their payouts! I wanted drag racing to be big time, like NASCAR.”
On April 9th, 1972 a large group of famous, professional drag racers signed a petition stating that they would run at an unnamed and theoretical drag race on Labor Day weekend if that race paid $25,000 to win each professional class (Top Fuel, Pro Stock, Nitro Funny Car). That petition also mentioned their desire to start their own organization combining the power of all three professional categories’ owners and drivers. That organization, called the Professional Racers Association formed in May of 1972.
Later in May the group announced that they were actually going to hold the race they mentioned in their petition and it would be $25,000 to win each class, with all three fields being 32-qualified cars. At the time of this announcement, winning an NHRA national even in a pro class paid less than a third of that money. No announcement was made of a track or sanctioning body affiliation with the race, but the IHRA and AHRA were two options.
In June of 1972 Jim Tice, sends a letter to the Professional Racers Association telling them that he and the AHRA want to sanction the race, have it in Tulsa, and that they will pay the $120,000 in prize money that the purse will the require for winner and round pay outs. From that point forward momentum regarding the race began to build with professional racers. Controversy within the Pro Stock ranks played into the hands of Tice and Garlits as the Chrysler factory backed teams had decided to boycott Indy due to rules and weight breaks. It was eventually decided that the Chrysler teams would compete in Tulsa after they were granted the use of rosin on the starting line.
All the while, NHRA was “finding” money to boost purses up. First it was from a group of local hotels and businesses and secondly it was from the Coca-Cola Company of Indiana. The NHRA purses were significantly higher than they have ever been, but still not even in the ballpark of what the Tulsa race promised to pay in guaranteed money (before contingency).
The stage was set and the two locomotives were running at full steam toward each other down the track….
“It was certainly more than another drag race,” said Jon Lundberg emphatically. Lundberg, one of the greatest drag race announcers in the history of the sport was the voice of the event in Tulsa and was in a rare position to see things unfold from the “inside out” so to speak. (Editor’s note: Lundberg is 100% completely retired from the activity of drag race announcing. May 5th was the last race he’ll ever do. Even if you ask nice, he’ll decline…politely) Lundberg told us that he witnessed Don Garlits give an impassioned speech to a group of 40-50 concerned racers the day before the race. While Garlits, the largest name in the sport probably didn’t have to worry about being blackballed, other racers feared that their ability to race NHRA events would be stripped from them for racing in Tulsa. “Don Garlits gave a very significant speech the day before that race and it really inspired those that were on the fence to stay and race. Any time you put 40-50 drag racers in the same spot and they all leave of one mind, you know something pretty amazing has happened.”
Garlits remembers the moment as being a rallying point as well, “I just thanked them all for coming and told them we were making history! We did, we changed the sport! I also told them that Wally was probably having a “hissy fit”, looking at the empty pits and stands.”
Other than Garlits’ speech, some other significant things happened, specifically to the facility. Some reports have Jim Tice investing more than $50,000 into what was then called Tulsa International Raceway before the event for infrastructure upgrades to seating, facilities, pit paving, etc. On the other end of the spectrum are written reports from 1972 that force the reader to look between the lines and see a different picture. While not specifically coming out and saying anything definitive they certainly make it seem like a different scenario than Tice throwing money at the track. That different scenario involves the US Navy, an organization that Garlits had a significant relationship with in the 1960s and 1970s, and an organization who had one of its largest recruiting hubs in Tulsa. Was it Tice’s investment or US Navy elbow grease that led to the quick refurbishment of Tulsa before this event?
Lundberg was on board with the Navy side of the argument when we discussed this topic with him, “One of the biggest problems was getting the facility set up for the event,” he said. “The whole world knew about this Tulsa race and the buzz really got out. Don Garlits had a great relationship with the US Navy and one of their biggest centers of recruiting was Tulsa. Those guys were not going to let this event be anything less than full house. The facility was nearly rebuilt in the lead up to this race. Garlits added that it was a combo of Navy elbow grease and Tice cash that got things done, “I believe it was a little more than 50K. The Navy wanted to help, they saw the advantage of their presence in front of so many youth. When they found out about the race, they wanted to be involved.”
So why were the racers demanding that the NHRA’s purse structure be updated? Progress is expensive, that’s why. ”The racers had legitimate concerns,” Lundberg said. “With the switch to rear engine dragsters, racing had escalated in cost by about 30%.” The racers wanted purses to change as an acknowledgement of that.
What was in this for Jim Tice, the leader of the AHRA? What did he stand to gain in putting up the single largest purse in the history of drag racing at this event? Was it the ability to take a big and potentially painful swipe at Wally Parks, the man whose vision birthed the sport as a legal and professional enterprise or was it the desire to hold the biggest and best drag race the world had ever seen to that point? “There’s a possibility it was both,” Lundberg said. “At this point Jim Tice was in the second year of the successful ‘Grand American” program and at one point that year he and Wally Parks walked into a party together in Southern California laughing and obviously enjoying each other’s company. It set the rumor mill flying. In the end, it seems that they put their differences aside for an evening and simply did it to do it.” Garlits was more to the point on Tice’s motives, “Jim did not need any prodding, he always wanted to challenge NHRA and he had the money to do it, he just needed the racer support, the PRA gave him the support.”
Was all this enough to make him pick up the tab for the race? Tice may have been of the mindset that if he didn’t, someone else probably would. Larry Carrier had started his IHRA in 1970, had an amazing facility in Bristol, Tennessee, and given the chance may have snatched up the race and hosted it at Thunder Valley. The event also had the potential to have some legs, in the eyes of Tice. It was a date already known in the drag racing world, it would have immense star power and it would certainly have media impact when the story from the first one was told. Maybe he saw it as a long term investment. Tice’s agreement with the Garlits led PRA granted him 50% of all profits….if the race made any.
By all accounts, the race was not a large financial success. “We had a very good crowd, but it was not a mow down the fences crowd,” said Lundberg. “I’ve seen mow down the fences crowds and this wasn’t at that level.” Speculation ranges from a break even to a total financial disaster with the investment level that Tice had in the race. Garlits said that there was some money to split when the bills were paid, but not a whole bunch. “Tice and the PRA split about $10,000.00 profit, but there were repairs to the track that had to come out of the budget before the split.”
While that was unfortunate for Tice’s wallet, the people that were at the race saw what was probably the greatest professional drag race ever held up to 1972. The fields were tighter than Indy. The nitro fields, while about a tenth off the pace the racers at Indy were setting, had more names, more cars, more carnage, and more excitement than what was happening in Indiana. Indy had a 16 car field of floppers and Tulsa had 32. The Pro Stock race at Tulsa was beyond epic. The top five qualifiers at Tulsa were Jenkins, Landy, Sox, McCandless, and Mike Fons. The rest of the 32 car field carried the same weight thanks to the other names on that list.
One racer really launched his star at Tulsa, though. A relative unknown named Warren Johnson waded deep into a Pro Stock field that was chock full of legends and packed a hard enough punch that his name was put on the fast track to national stardom in the Pro Stock ranks. We all know the next few chapters of his story and rise to domination of the class for a long stretch as, “the professor”. Unfortunately for him, Grumpy Jenkins took the cash at the end of the weekend.
Lundberg’s opinion of the racing? “Everyone left that event talking to themselves,” he said. “There’s a special time at every big event when the whole place is just buzzing and you know that every racer down in the pits is swapping the smallest pulley on the blower, dumping the last drops of nitro into the fuel tank, cranking the mag over as hard as they can, and they’re getting ready to give everything they have. That’s the way it was for days straight at this event. I believe that there were in excess of 60 top fuel dragsters. The field was large enough that guys who weren’t close to the bubble packed up and sped to Indy. It was amazing drag racing. There are times when you know that you’re at a special event and this was certainly one of those times.”
At the end of the weekend Don Moody won Top Fuel, Tom McEwen won Funny Car, and Grumpy Jenkins won in Pro Stock. The event was not as well attended as Indy, not as tightly executed as Indy, and not the profitable enterprise Jim Tice had planned, but it was certainly no failure. The simple fact that it happened, made it a success. It was something that Wally Parks could have never dreamed of just a couple years before. An event on the sacred Labor Day weekend taking all of “his” top talent, and actually giving the mighty US Nationals a run for their money. Pure bizarro world thoughts in 1971, but in 1972 it was real life. “Don Garlits was quoted as saying, ‘The ground shook in Tulsa and in Indy this weekend,’ after the event and I believe he was right,” Lundberg said.
That shaking ground in Tulsa never really settled under the feet of Parks, according to Garlits anyway. Parks never forgot or forgave, “Wally and I never spoke of the event, ever. He never to his dying day forgave me for challenging “His” Nationals,” Garlits said. Interestingly, the larger implications on his career are not lost on Big Daddy. While he was never denied access to NHRA events, he paid a large price for founding the PRA and creating this event, “I made a mistake, I wouldn’t do it again, overall it cost me a lot of money and one by one the racers returned to the NHRA fold. Even the Snake, McEwen and the Grump qualified on Thursday and returned to Indy for the Monday finals, without them the Nationals would have been a complete flop. No, I wouldn’t do it again, it cost me untold millions in sponsorship money and National Dragster publicity. Nobody appreciated how much work my wife and I put into the whole affair. I also met some real sleazy operators during the few years we operated and I didn’t like that either. The larger purses attracted the sponsors and the big money teams and now there is no place for the “little guy”, like I was when I started. I’m sorry I ever did it.” He continued, “Like I said, there has been tons of negative impact. I never had a major sponsor like Force or Prudhomme. Got close several times, but when they contacted NHRA/Wally, the cold water was thrown on the sponsorship. I could have had a beer/tobacco sponsorship, but I didn’t want that because of the children.”
NHRA purses rose in more significant increments after the National Challenge ’72. While Wally Parks would never publicly admit that the race had any lasting impact on the business practices of the NHRA, it seems clear that the race did raise the stature and confidence of the racers and their approach to “upper management” at the NHRA. Ironically, we once again find ourselves in an era where professional drag racing purses are comically low as compared to the cost of operating a race team. Will there be another Mexican drag racing stand off 40 years after the last one? Highly unlikely. The scene today is so intertwined and both sides are so addicted to the money needle, they cannot afford to boycott, protest, or splinter.
There was a National Challenge ’73, but it was nothing to the level of the 1972 race in significance and the National Challenge ’74, which was held at the long dead New York National Speedway was a complete and abject disaster. That race was such a calamity that the track manager of NY National at the time, Ed Eaton felt it necessary to pen a story in Super Stock and Drag Illustrated magazine telling the inside story of how big a jacked up mess it was. By the end of that weekend, Garlits had resigned as leader of the organization and it was a total debacle from beginning to end. Don remembered the weekend and the issues that came along with it, “The positive was; the way the racers rallied behind me for the formation of the PRA/PRO and then the first two events at Tulsa. Then the first really big mistake, we moved the race to New York National and it was all downhill from there on. Looking back, I think what happened at NYNS was planned to happen the way it did, Wally was getting real concerned and had to kill the PRO real quick!”
Like lots of protest movements, it was successful when the iron was initially heated, but by the end, even a racer with the gravity of Don Garlits could not keep it cohesive and unified.
The National Challenge ’72 was the greatest rogue/protest drag race ever staged. It was the highest profile event of its kind and actually accomplished its ultimate goal, coercing the NHRA to do something it didn’t want (and never officially admitted) to do. Dissension and protest are naturally uncomfortable and messy things, but as we’ve learned all through American history, they are effective means of making a point. As they were here.
This weekend when you’re watching or following the results of the US Nationals, remember that band of rogue professional drag racers running their asses off in Tulsa on a grey weekend in 1972. It was a weekend that forever changed the course of the sport, the relationship of Don Garlits and Wally Parks, and the relationship between professional drag racers and the NHRA. For better or worse? You decide.