Wacky Drag Racing History: The Day An Airplane Destroyed The Tree At An NHRA National Event!

Wacky Drag Racing History: The Day An Airplane Destroyed The Tree At An NHRA National Event!

(Photos by Bob Boudreau and John Chisholm) – There are bad days at the office and then there are BAD days at the office and at the 1975 NHRA Le GrandNational at Sanair Dragway outside of Montreal, the NHRA’s Steve Gibbs certainly had one. The morning was OK. Nothing was out of place when he woke up, ate breakfast and headed for the track. The crowd was good, Canadian fans had been packing Sanair since the NHRA started showing up at one of the world’s first “super tracks”. The weather was nice, the pre-race plans were all looking good and the racing fields were set.. Things were looking up. That is, they were looking up until the show started.

As part of the program of pre-race ceremonies, an old bi-place was slated to fly in, land on the track and drop off Miss Molson the race queen in front of the crowd. The pilot had made a dry run before the event so he knew what it was like to land on the strip and navigate the plane. There happened to be a flaw with this program though. “The pilot of the plane was a very experienced pilot, like a Sr. Captain with Air Canada or something like that and he had come into the track on a non-raceday with the airplane,” Steve Gibbs said. “The problem with that was the christmas tree, a-boards, and other stuff wasn’t up on a non-race day so this pilot had no clue that they were there.” Believe it or not, Gibbs can personally relate to how the pilot made his historic blunder, “I have owned one of these planes. They are called tail draggers for a reason and you literally cannot see in front of you while sitting on the ground. You have to make S-turns when you taxi to see things in front of you. The guy flying the Stearman couldn’t have seen the tree or anything else there at the starting line.”

While the “show” happened at the starting line, Gibbs’ nervousness started a lot earlier than that. “So he flew in and was driving up the track, I realized that he wasn’t going to see any of the timing lights. I was out there yelling and waving my hands and he just missed them coming up the track. I was relieved for a second before I realized that he would never see the tree.” Basically Gibbs and everyone else was helpless to just stand there and watch the inevitable happen. “He drove the plane straight into the tree,” Gibbs said with a laugh. Gibbs also was laughing when he told us that the race queen was waving to the crowd the entire time, including the minutes after the plane had literally destroyed the tree. “The guy flying the plane was really pissed,” Steve said. “The prop was damaged and all so we just had to tow the thing off other end of the track and park it off to the side so it could be repaired.”

As for the race? Believe it or not, the delay wasn’t all that long. “After the glass, wires and pieces stopped flying, we went out there to assess the situation and we got our backup tree out of the tower and installed it while we had a crew of guys with brooms and shovels clean up all the glass and stuff. I think it was 20-30 minutes down time total. We always had a backup tree,” Gibbs said.

Even though the backup tree was in use and the race was rolling, Gibbs was still freaked. “If someone runs over your backup tree, you are really in trouble so I got on the phone and we found that Napierville Dragway had a tree we could have brought in as a spare. They were going to fly it up to us so we had it,” Steve explained. Even this got complicated, though. “One of the guys told me that they wanted clearance to land on the track to drop this thing off and I told them no. Well, we had two top fuel cars running on the starting line and all of a sudden we saw the belly of a plane come very low over the tower roof and land on the track! It was the first and only time I have ever had two plane incidents over the course of one day at a drag race.”

Like we said, there are bad days and then BAD days! Fortunately, this one had a happy ending because the rest of the event went off without a hitch. Garlits won top fuel, Prudhomme won in funny car, and Wayne Gapp won in pro stock.


Aug 75 Biplane Jack C Aug 75-31 Aug 75-33

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4 thoughts on “Wacky Drag Racing History: The Day An Airplane Destroyed The Tree At An NHRA National Event!

  1. Piston Pete

    I remember hearing about this back in the day, but never knew the whole story. Very interesting, thanks.
    Snake won an NHRA race in 1975? Huh.

  2. Bob Boudreau

    Thanks for sharing our photos! I can remember it well “He’s going to stop.He’s going to stop”…..He didn’t!

  3. Joel Hemi

    Did you hear about the lady who backed into the airplane propeller? Dis-asster!

    Anyway, this incident just demonstrates how you can never be too prepared. Alway consider all the possibilities.

  4. Dave R.

    I was there! It was a surprise to say the least. There was a 3 hour delay waiting for a new “tree” to get there from another track. NHRA was not well prepared.

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