Remembering Ray Alley
The sport lost another friend yesterday with the passing of former Funny Car owner/driver Ray Alley, at age 86 after a lengthy illness. In this special column, drag racing hall of famer Kenny Bernstein remembers Alley, who gave him his first Funny Car ride.
Feb 8 2019
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
The sport lost another friend yesterday with the passing of former Funny Car owner/driver Ray Alley, at age 86 after a lengthy illness. Alley’s was a name that we all knew, whether he helped you with your racecar through his long-running Engine Masters business or if you grew up watching him drive Funny Cars in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Maybe you knew him as the guy who gave future four-time Funny Car world champion Kenny Bernstein his Funny Car ride in 1970 or maybe you bought RacePak computers from him in the early 1980s, watched him tune or assist scores of racers over the years, or, if you’re a newer fan, who knew him in the early 2000s as NHRA's nitro-racing czar.
Few people probably knew Alley better or longer than Bernstein, and it was KB who I turned to yesterday to learn more about their long friendship, which began while Bernstein was in his early 20s and living in Lubbock, Texas.
“I first met Ray in 1965,” Bernstein recalled. “I had this little D/Gas Anglia, a small-block Chevy with two carburetors and a four speed transmission, but the Torqueflite [automatic] transmission had become the craze, so I looked in the magazines -- I think it was Car Craft or Hot Rod -- to see who in California was working with them, and there was Art Carr and Engine Masters. I called Engine Masters. and talked right to Ray. He told me if I could come out to California he’d put one in for me and take me out to Lions Dragstrip on Saturday night. So a buddy of mine and me and jumped in my Pontiac towing my Anglia and came out the California. We worked at Ray’s shop for two days, put it in, went to Lions, and then Sunday morning, headed back to Texas.”
But that simple transaction, one that Alley no doubt had experienced scores of times before and would after, somehow magically connected the two. They stayed in touch through their various racing encounters. Alley bought the wild Allison-powered Big Al Ford Tudor from Jim Lytle and ran that as the P-51 Engine Masters entry. Bernstein began racing Top Fuelers in Texas for the likes of the Carroll brothers, the Anderson brothers, and Prentiss Cunningham.
As Funny Cars came into vogue, Alley took his act under fiberglass beginning in the mid-1960s, when Funny Cars still ran under the XS designation (Experimental Stock), and ran a number of cars -- including the Dodge Charger shown above in 1967, which he ran for a few weeks as a "convertible" after the roof blew off after a stuck-throttle pass at Irwindale -- before debuting a new Plymouth Barracuda that would eventually provide Bernstein his first ride in a flopper.
“I had a weekend off and came out to California,” Bernstein remembered. “Ray was gonna race at Irwindale with that Barracuda -- we called it the purple grape –- so I just came out here to hang with him. We worked on it for a couple of days and he said, ‘Well, why don't you drive with this weekend?’ I said, ‘Are you serious?’ because I had never sat in one let alone driven one, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, get in there and drive it.’ We went out to Irwindale and I remember when they put the body down I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I'm used to seeing everything [in a dragster]; this is not the best.’ But on the second run I made, I think was like 7.89 at 189-190 mph, and that was pretty cool, you know? We split the cylinder and we couldn't go on that next to the rest of the day. But it was fun.”
Funny Cars would quickly become even more fun for Bernstein. Alley built a second car, a Mercury Cougar, and gave it to Bernstein to run in the southwest in 1970, which he did with his own crew, led by Ted Tholcken. (KB's name was lettered on the car as Ken back then.) Alley, meanwhile, largely stayed out west with his car, first a Mustang and then a new Dodge Charger, but was getting restless, as was sometimes Alley’s way, according to Bernstein. “He was still driving his new Charger but was getting fed up with it, so he called me to drive that, and off we went,” said Bernstein.
The duo reached their first national event final round together at the 1973 Winternationals, but Bernstein was turned away in the money run by Don Schumacher, who scored his fifth and final NHRA victory that day. Later that same year, Bernstein opened the first of what would be 13 Chelsea King pubs in the southwest and concentrated on the business in lieu of racing.
Ray Alley part II
Alley, meanwhile, went off on a totally different tangent, partnering with hall of fame announcer/pitchman Steve Evans on a rocket car, which he called the Age of Aquarius (presumably named after the Fifth Dimension’s hit song). Alley tried to recruit Bernstein into the project, but KB wasn't having any of that, thank you very much.
Recalls Bernstein, “He calls me up in Texas and says, ‘I got a deal for us; we're gonna buy rocket car. [Bill] Doner and Evans have this car and it’s a good one.’ I told him I'd come out and see about it, but it wasn’t for me. I didn’t want to drive that thing. But he loved it and he did it for quite a while and ran are really fast and quick. He really enjoyed that, and that was Ray’s kind of deal; it was perfect for him because it wasn't in real competition and the car was pretty maintenance-free and he got to have some fun.”
Bernstein returned to Funny Car racing in 1977, driving a second L.A. Hooker car for the Condit brothers, but yearned for his own operation and the Chelsea King Funny Car was born. Leroy Goldstein was his first crew chief and together they won the 1979 Cajun Nationals. That success, and Bernstein’s business acumen, led to his breakthrough sponsorship with Anheuser Busch’s Budweiser brand, but he needed to perform for his new backers. So he called Ray Alley.
“In 1979 and ’80, I didn't have the right packages together, crew chief-wise, and we were our struggling awfully hard," Bernstein recalled, "so I called Ray and said, ‘I need some help, buddy. I'm gonna lose this Budweiser deal if we’re not careful because I can't perform the way we need to.’ He came running and put us right back in the game. He would always come running when I needed help. When he came on, immediately I went from hardly even been able to get down the racetrack to becoming the seventh member of the five-second club [Gainesville, 1981].”
In 1981, they also won the Mile-High Nationals and challenged fellow Texas Raymond Beadle for the championship. Entering the U.S. Nationals, they were just three rounds out of first, but Beadle beat them in round one, then they shockingly DNQ’d at the Golden Gate Nationals and World Finals, and ended up third in points, behind Beadle and Don Prudhomme. Despite their success, Alley was done … at least for now. Alley’s departure opened the door for the historically fruitful partnership between Bernstein and Dale Armstrong, who was ready to stop driving after a fiery season behind the wheel of the Speed Racer Vega.
“Ray didn’t want to travel anymore, and he recommended Dale, who he thought really wanted to work on the cars more than he did drive,” Bernstein recalled. “We knew he’d be a good crew chief because he tuned all of his own cars and was so far ahead of everyone in the alcohol classes that he almost went off and hid, and he had the Speed Racer running as good as anyone with a very limited amount of money. Ray talked to Dale first, and he was interested, so I talked to Dale and said, ‘This feels good, looks good, smells good -– let’s do it.’ “
Alley stuck around though, and as Armstrong and Ron Armstrong (no relation) developed a data recorder, Bernstein brought Alley in as a partner to handle sales and marketing to popularize the use of “computers" on cars and, well, we all know how that turned out for the sport.
Alley was in and out of the spotlight for the next two decades, but it was his crew chief role on Bob Vandergriff Jr.’s dragster in the late 1990s that put him back in the limelight, and when NHRA came looking for an experienced and knowledgeable nitro veteran to oversee the Top Fuel and Funny Car classes, with Bernstein’s urging, NHRA hired Alley.
“He was a lot like Armstrong,” said Bernstein, in what is perhaps the ultimate compliment one could give a nitro tuner. “He really understood what made cars go. He knew the mechanical side of everything. He had a lot of a lot of great ideas."
Alley stayed at that post until right around Indy 2007, when he rejoined Bernstein, who making a comeback in the Funny Car class with a new sponsorship from Monster Energy. Despite a talented tuning roster that included (at varying times) Jimmy Walsh, Johnny West, and Gary Kennedy (the latter two shown above, with Alley, right), the team struggled, and life was tough for both Bernstein and Alley.
“I look back now and wish I'd never talking him into coming to that deal because I think he really enjoyed the NHRA side better,” Bernstein lamented. “Ray was really sweetheart of a guy, more often than not, but like all us he could get his nose out of joint. As talented as he was, he sometimes would get extremely forgetful, like working on the car and putting jets in. He could easily get distracted, so we had a rule that nobody talks to Ray while he’s working on the race car, Sheryl [Bernstein’s wife] came up with the name; we used to call him ‘Lemonhead,’ and he loved it. He thought it was funny as hell because he was just sometimes in a la- la world of his own. It was funny for a guy who was as smart and sweet and intelligent could just be in his own world sometimes.
“But he was a very, very close friend and even when we would get on the bad side of each other -- because that wouldn't happen -- we always ended up getting back and kissing and making up. He was a great friend through the years, even through the bad times. We always came back to each other and cared about each other no matter what. He helped me so much in the beginning of my career; it’s just amazing because he seemed to always have confidence in me to be the driver that I could be and have success at it. He just saw that.
“When I first came out to California and met Ray, I‘d only been out of high school a couple of three years, but it was just one of those friendships that developed quickly and deeply. I was just this young kid, but we clicked. He was a great person, a great friend, I can't tell you how much influence he had on me through the years. It was like, whenever I got in the worst shape I was in, he was there to help.”
RIP Ray Alley, gone but not forgotten.
Remembering Dick LaHaie
Dec 7 2018
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
A lot of former Top Fuel and Funny Car drivers have gone on to become successful crew chiefs, but there aren’t a lot of guys in NHRA nitro racing’s history who not only won a championship as a driver but then used their mechanical skills to tune other drivers to world championships. Then there’s Dick LaHaie, whom we lost Wednesday, who won the crown as a driver then tuned not just one but two drivers to a combined four Top Fuel championships after he left the cockpit.
The 1987 NHRA Top Fuel champ, who had been in the class since the mid-1960s earning a reputation as a cagey driver/tuner who could do the most with the least, hung up his driving gloves in the early 1990s and earned a second huge dose of respect when he returned to the sport as a crew chief in 1993 at Kalitta Motorsports, where he wrenched Scott Kalitta to championships in 1994 and ’95, and a few years later, repeated the trick with driver Larry Dixon in Don Prudhomme’s Miller Lite dragster in 2002-03.
Much like Tim Wilkerson today, LaHaie was a man of the people because he did it all and did it with less. Tim might have Wilk’s Warriors but Dick-o surely had LaHaie’s Legion. In the mid-1980s, with a small crew that usually just included his daughter Kim (and, later, son Jeff), they more than held their own against the higher-funded and larger teams of guys like Joe Amato and Gary Ormsby. I got to interview him a lot during the 1980s, and even though he always seemed to have 20 things on his to-do list, he made the time to answer questions (though he clearly was disdainful of stupid questions; we came prepared!) and was always a staff favorite.
While you can read a more detailed account of his career here, I thought I’d remember him today with some photos from the National Dragster collection, and the memories of some of those closest to him.
LaHaie got his start in Top Fuel in 1964 with Noah Canfield and Charlie Johnson and later fielded his own car. This is 1970, the year he won his first UDRA championship, racing against “Sneaky Pete” Robinson.
LaHaie built all of his own cars at Wayne Farr's shop in Lansing, Mich. He built his first rear-engined car in 1972 and every car he raced up through and including his 1984 car. This is from Englishtown in 1973, when he won his second UDRA title.
This is a cool photo for a number of reasons. It’s round one at the 1975 Winternationals, and LaHaie is driving the car he ran with well-liked fellow Michigander Bob “Pancho” Rendon. They’re racing Shirley Muldowney, who had earned her license two years earlier in Rendon’s own car. It was just Muldowney’s third NHRA race in Top Fuel (having run Columbus and Indy in ’74) and Kalitta undoubtedly was tuning for her. Despite her lead, LaHaie came back to win this round, 6.20 to 6.33.
The rest of 1975 did not turn out so well for LaHaie. He shelved the Winternationals car, which was too heavy, and built a new one for the Gatornationals but the car was destroyed in a crash during qualifying when the throttle stuck open. LaHaie did the only thing he could, shoving in the clutch to blow the engine, but the car veered out of control and crashed heavily. LaHaie’s right arm was broken but, much worse, his left hand was severed in the wreck but, in an incredibly serendipitous collision of fates, a group of medically-trained Vietnam veterans was in Gainesville teaching limb replacement and were able to assist in having the hand successful reattached.
LaHaie had a new car built and debuted it at U.S. 30 Dragstrip a week before the U.S. Nationals and won the event, but on his third qualifying run in Indy, the left rear tire started to go away on a 236-mph pass. "I felt it shudder as it was coming up to the lights, like it was wadding up on itself,” LaHaie told me in a 2012 interview. “It blew the inner liner, and the tire got all crazy, and over it went. There wasn’t anything I could do about it." LaHaie lost three toes (two of which were successfully reattached) and broke his right arm again in the accident. A month after the wreck, LaHaie decided he was going to race again, and Marv Rifchin, founder and president of M&H Tires, cut him a check for a new Top Fueler. LaHaie had nerves (and, obviously other parts) of steel.
I love this shot. It’s LaHaie in 1980, wearing a Shirley Muldowney t-shirt. The 1980 season was the first time that LaHaie cracked the Top 10 points standings, finishing fifth after scoring his first career win in Englishtown.
Daughter Kim joined the team in 1982 and became the most prominent and celebrated female mechanic in the sport since the great Alison Lee. Even though her dad listed her on the car as “crew chief,” in an interview earlier this year with ND’s Jake Sundstrom, she said, “I don’t know if I even look at the role as being the crew chief, to be honest; him and I just worked together side by side. To me, working on the race car was just second nature. It was something I really enjoyed. I learned a lot with him and from him, and it was a lot of fun. Back in those days, it was a lot of hard work. There were quite a few years where it was just the two of us, but we made it happen.”
The 1987 championship car, shown in mid-burnout in Phoenix, where he and Kim won their fourth and final race of the season.
LaHaie was congratulated by the two amazing women in life, wife Claudia, left, and Kim, after he won the 1987 event in Reading.
The 1987 championship battle came down to the World Finals in Pomona, where LaHaie put it away by personally defeating his closest rival, Joe Amato, in the semifinals, leading the team to post this sign in their pit. It’s worth noting the late Bob Brooks, of clutch manufacturer AFT, standing in the trailer door; he was instrumental to their championship and a longtime close friend of LaHaie.
LaHaie met Brooks in the 1970s when he was a customer of (and sponsored by) Brooks Racing Components and LaHaie was later AFT’s first customer. “I ran the first clutch he ever made –- it was a spring-style like they use in Alcohol Dragster –- at an NHRA race in Tulsa [Okla.] in 1986,” LaHaie told me in 2014. “I said ‘Bring your clutch and everything we’ll need and bring plenty of it because I’m going to turn that thing into a potato chip every time it goes down the racetrack.’ Lo and behold, it was a nice clutch, and I won the championship the next year with one of his centrifugal clutches."
Despite their rivalry in 1987, LaHaie had a great relationship with Amato’s tuner, Tim Richards. Years later, they became family when Kim and Tim got married.
Great low-angle shot of LaHaie working on the fuel pump, with Kim in the background probably headed off to the clutch, which became her specialty.
Did he also do his own bottom end work? Of course he did his own bottom end work, and had some fun with our photographer in the process. This is from 1988, the year after his championship, and nothing had changed in his work ethic.
Another classic LaHaie photo from the files. I’m not sure what he was so stressed out about here, but I love the shot.
The 1991 season was the last behind the wheel for LaHaie, who got some financial assistance from Canadian donut king Tim Horton, but not enough to stay in business. He still finished in the Top 10 (9th) for the ninth time in 11 seasons.
It didn’t take LaHaie long to turn Scott Kalitta into a championship contender, winning with his in Topeka in 1993 not long after joining the team, which earned him another kiss, this one from Connie. The senior Kalitta issued a statement after LaHaie’s passing, saying, "The drag racing community has lost a good man and a true pioneer of our sport. Dick made such an impact on Kalitta Motorsports, the NHRA as a whole, and me personally. He will be truly missed."
En route to Scott's first championship in 1994, the team won four straight races -- Columbus, Topeka, Denver, and Sonoma -- and Dick and Claudia and Scott celebrated together in the Sonoma winner's circle.
After he left the Kalitta team, LaHaie tuned for another legend of the sport, Don Prudhomme, from 2000 through his retirement in 2005, and wrenched Larry Dixon to back-to-back titles in 2002-03. Brooks was also very instrumental in getting LaHaie hired there.
“I was working for Doug Herbert then,” LaHaie told me, “and Brooks was working with [Dale] Armstrong over at ‘Snake’s,’ but they were going to work on Prudhomme’s Funny Car. Brooks said I at least needed to talk to Prudhomme about it, so I went over and talked to ‘Snake’ and told him I didn’t think it would work because I never liked him; he just rolled his eyes and said, ‘I never wanted to go to dinner with you, either.’
"We went our separate ways, but later that season, I went to work for them at Reading, just to watch the car run. On Monday, I asked them to change the car to run it my way: less nitro, some more compression, and my clutch settings, and the car went right down the track with really good numbers. ‘Snake’ got the crew guys together and told them, ‘This is going to be short and to the point, and I want you to listen very closely to what I’m saying. If Dick LaHaie says tomorrow is Easter, start coloring the eggs.’ We had a helluva run together.”
Prudhomme, too, had nothing but kind words for LaHaie.
“There was a period of time there that he was the best I’d ever seen,” said Prudhomme. “He knew more about burning a drum on nitro than anyone. I admired him long before he came to work for me, when he had his own car and used to run it with his daughter. It really bothered him to tear up parts and, as a team owner, I really loved him because he could run the thing without blowing the blower off it. He was a great tuner and ended up being a damn good friend. Guys like him and Dale Armstrong did a lot for the sport; they were pretty amazing. Having a guy like him who, win, lose, of draw gave you everything he had, meant a lot to me.”
More than a dozen years after worked together, Dixon and LaHaie also remained close, talking at least once a month on the phone.
“He was as close to being my dad as he could be without being my dad,” said Dixon, who first worked with LaHaie in 1987 when they were both part of Minor’s multi-car team. “This sucks.”
With two great mentors like Prudhomme and LaHaie, Dixon learned everything a guy could learn. Prudhomme taught him the ropes and LaHaie helped apply the finishing touches.
“When Dick came to our team, he told us we could win the championship but we weren’t going to do it right out of the gate,” remembered Dixon. “We were going to have to learn how to race and how to win. The first season we finished third, the next season we were second, and the next season we finished first. Dick wasn’t interested in what the latest trick part was; he wanted a proven product and then would do a better job refining the setup than anyone else to get the most out of it.
"The story I always tell people about Dick is that I was the first guy to run a 4.40 [elapsed time], with Armstrong tuning in 1999. Dick came on board at the end of that year and I didn’t run another 4.40 until 2005, but do you know how many races I won without running a 4.40? [I do; 30.] We were going down the track almost every run and I loved that. It taught me so much.”
LaHaie remained an occasional visitor to the races after he retired, visiting with Kim in 2007 when she worked with Richards on the Budweiser Top Fuel team, with Connie Kalitta that same year, and brought his magnificent Crossley to Gainesville in 2011, where he was saluted on the starting line. Health issues in the following years restricted his ability to travel and he underwent a lung transplant in 2015.
Despite his passing, LaHaie will still hold a firm place in our hearts and memories. His family-won championship (as part of the Larry Minor organization) was one of the last of its kind. He came from an era when the driver and mechanic were usually one and the same (although subsequent champs like Del Worsham still liked to get their hands dirty while driving), but LaHaie was a modern throwback who still did both on the verge of the chasm that soon separated the driver from many mechanical responsibilities. He was a guy who could -– and did -– do it all. He’ll be missed.
American stock-car driver
Written By: Jay Busbee Alternative Titles: Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr. Junior Johnson, byname of Robert Glenn Johnson, Jr., (born June 28, 1931, Wilkes county, North Carolina, U.S.), American stock-car driver who ranks among the most influential figures in National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) history. One of NASCAR’s most colourful characters, Johnson was a direct link back to the sport’s early connection to liquor bootlegging. Though he never won a championship as a driver, he was a team owner whose drivers did bring home the sport’s top prizes. He was also an on-track innovator whose method of “drafting” changed racing forever.
The son of a bootlegger who spent nearly a third of his life in prison, Johnson grew up around both racing and illegal liquor running. He spent 11 months in prison for operating a liquor still, but he was never caught running moonshine. (U.S. Pres. Ronald Reagan would later grant him a pardon for his conviction.) Spurred on by his experiences of eluding the police in his native North Carolina, Johnson began racing in the Grand National (now Sprint Cup) Series in 1955.
In 1960 Johnson discovered a racing technique that would transform the sport. While running in practice at Daytona International Speedway in Florida, he realized he could get in the slipstream of faster cars and keep up with them because of the vastly reduced wind resistance, a technique known as “drafting.” With some skill, he could then slip out of the draft and pass the leading car, which was exactly what he did to win the Daytona 500 in 1960. (Johnson is also credited with inventing the bootleg turn, in which a driver brakes and turns the car 180 degrees, but such a move has little purpose in NASCAR.)
Johnson retired in 1966 with 50 Grand National wins, the winningest driver to have never won a championship, but he began a lucrative and heralded career as a stock-car owner. His drivers, including Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough, combined to bring home six NASCAR championships for Johnson between 1966 and 1995, when he got out of the ownership game. In 2011 he briefly dipped back into ownership, as his son Robert ran in the K&N Pro Series East.
Outside of NASCAR, Johnson was best known as the subject of Tom Wolfe’s landmark 1965 essay “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!” (The article, credited as a key work in the burgeoning field of the “New Journalism,” coined the term good ol’ boy.) Johnson was a member of the inaugural class of the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2010.
NHRA's 50 greatest drivers: no. 12 -- Lee Shepherd
Lee Shepherd was a soft-spoken Texan who let his driving do his talking. He was a member of the Reher, Morrison, and Shepherd triumvirate -- a remarkable trio of racers who utterly dominated Pro Stock in the early 1980s with their tri-colored Camaros.
Shepherd won four straight Winston championships in 1981-1984 and was on his way to a fifth consecutive title when the drag racing world was rocked by the news that he had died in a testing accident in Oklahoma on March 11, 1985.
The shy, slightly built driver still is remembered as a giant in the sport 16 years after his passing. From 1980 to 1984, Shepherd reached the finals in 44 of 56 NHRA national events, winning 26 of them. In 1983, he became the first driver to win both the NHRA and IHRA Pro Stock championships -- a feat he repeated the following year. He won every race on the NHRA tour at least once, compiled a 173-47 record in NHRA competition, and is still ranked fourth on the lists of all-time Pro Stock winners and finalists.
But it is not just Shepherd's record that survives. He still is remembered as both a friend and a fierce competitor by those who knew him. He was a driver who honed his racing skills on a racquetball court, sharpening his reflexes to gain an advantage on the starting line. He was a skilled craftsman who labored long hours on the handcrafted cylinder heads that gave the RMS Chevrolets an insurmountable horsepower advantage.
Shepherd also had the patience to spend tedious hours grinding a mirror by hand for his telescope, and the killer instinct to cut down his competition on the starting line. Long before he became a Pro Stock champion, Shepherd was a weekend warrior with a knack for driving and a talent for porting cylinder heads. What he lacked, however, was confidence. His chief rivals on the Southwestern Sportsman circuit were Buddy Morrison and David Reher, two University of Texas students who campaigned a mongrel Chevy-powered Maverick driven by Bobby Cross.
Reher and Morrison eventually persuaded Shepherd to tow his Chevy II station wagon to Ohio for the 1972 Springnationals. Shepherd's lime-green F/MP Nova made it to the final round in Modified eliminator, and his self-esteem soared.
With Cross devoting more time to his fledgling business, Reher and Morrison needed a driver, and Shepherd was the obvious choice. The three Texans pooled their limited resources and forged their longstanding partnership.
The Reher, Morrison, and Shepherd team promptly won the 1974 Winternationals with their pumpkin-orange F/Gas Maverick. Recognizing the advantages of the Stingray Corvette's shorter wheelbase and rearward engine location, the Texans borrowed a Corvette body, transplanted the Maverick's powertrain, and notched another Modified victory at the 1975 Springnationals.
The three amigos soon realized that any chance of landing sponsorship and factory support hinged on competing in a high-profile professional class. Although they were sportsman racers at heart, Reher, Morrison, and Shepherd knew that their future was in Pro Stock.
Following the standard Pro Stock recipe, RMS commissioned Don Ness, then an obscure chassis builder from Minnesota, to construct a small-block Monza in 1976. Shepherd's rookie season turned sour, though, when an apparent suspension failure led to a high-speed crash at the Summernationals in Englishtown. Uninjured but shaken by the experience, Shepherd temporarily retired from Pro Stock.
Shepherd returned to his sportsman roots, winning Modified eliminator at the 1977 Cajun Nationals in a G/Modified Production Camaro. Reher and Morrison recruited New Yorker Richie Zul as a replacement driver for their rebuilt Monza, but the personalities and cultures didn't mesh.
Shepherd was enticed to return to the Pro Stock wars in 1978 when Reher and Morrison launched their secret weapon: a Z28 Camaro powered not by the ubiquitous big-block Chevy V-8 but by a small-block engine. The Camaro's long, 108-inch wheelbase dramatically improved its high-speed handling, and a generous weight allowance for the little engine made it a killer combination.
Reher, Morrison, and Shepherd were virtually unbeatable in 1980 with their innovative Camaro. They notched a record six wins and three runner-up finishes in 10 NHRA national events. Only a broken transmission in the final race of the season denied the team its first NHRA championship.
They came roaring back the following year with their next breakthrough -- an arsenal of small-displacement big-blocks. The three Texans won six more NHRA national events in 1981 and claimed their first Winston championship.
NHRA introduced new Pro Stock rules at the 1982 Winternationals and replaced the previous system of complex weight breaks with a simple 500-cid/2,350-pound formula. Reher-Morrison's burgeoning big-block program gave them a head start on developing engines for these new-generation Pro Stock cars. Shepherd ran a 7.86 elapsed time in the season opener in Pomona, which was the first seven-second Pro Stock run in NHRA history.
The dawn of Pro Stock's big-block era also opened another world for Reher, Morrison, and Shepherd to conquer. The team pursued parallel NHRA and IHRA engine programs, assembling 500-cid engines for NHRA events and behemoth 615- and 632-cid mountain motors for IHRA competition. Shepherd compiled a 48-6 record in IHRA competition in 1983-1984 and won back-to-back titles.
Shepherd was a member in good standing of Pro Stock's Gang of Four -- a quartet of drivers that included Warren Johnson, Bob Glidden, and Frank Iaconio. This foursome won every NHRA national event on the schedule over a span of six seasons and 64 races. Shepherd set the Pro Stock national e.t. and speed records a total of 14 times.
There were accolades off the track as well. Shepherd was the Pro Stock Driver of the Year on the Car Craft All-star Drag Racing Team four consecutive seasons. He was voted to the All-American Team three times by the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Association. Super Stock magazine proclaimed him the "Real World Champion" in 1982-1984 based on a points system that tallied the performance of drivers in all three Professional categories.
RMS Racing was on a roll. The team's winnings financed the construction of a sparkling 20,000-square-foot shop in Arlington, Texas. There were new machines, new dyno cells, and new race cars under construction. Life was good. And then the unthinkable happened. Shepherd was killed in an accident while testing his '84 Camaro on a dragstrip in Ardmore, Okla.
According to eyewitness accounts, Shepherd had just finished making a series of 60-foot test clockings, then made a full pass. On that run, he recorded a 7.87, the parachute deployed, and the car picked up on the right front and went airborne. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
Shepherd's death traumatized the sport. Mourners came from California, Michigan, and New York to attend his funeral. Racers put black slashes through the numbers on their cars, and the Pro Stock drivers memorialized Shepherd with a missing-man parade at the next national event, in Gainesville, Fla.
Following Shepherd's death, the team regrouped with Sportsman standout Bruce Allen behind the wheel of the familiar red, white, and blue Camaro. "Racing is what we do," explained Morrison. That was all that was needed to be said.
Shepherd continues to cast a giant shadow over Pro Stock. He is still the standard by which drivers are judged. Few can match his grace under pressure or his gunfighter reflexes at the starting line.
"Lee was an excellent driver," remembered five-time Pro Stock champion Warren Johnson, one of the few active drivers who raced against Shepherd. "He seemed very relaxed when he was driving. I think that was when he was having fun."
Like Blaine Johnson, "Sneaky Pete" Robinson, and others whose careers were cut short by tragedy, there is no telling what heights Shepherd could have achieved. For the generation of fans who saw him in action, Shepherd was the consummate Pro Stock racer -- and one of the greatest drivers in NHRA history.
FROM THE NHRA