Retro Rumblings – Fire Burnout!
Nothing in drag racing brings back the glory years more than nostalgic photos of a fire burnout. These images represent the true fire, fury, and wild times of drag racing’s golden years. Fire burnouts were a part of drag racing lore in the ’60s and ’70s. Seeing a nitro car purposely erupt in flames during a burnout drove the fans (and photographers) into a frenzy. Chief among the flaming flambouyants were TV Tommy Ivo and Don Garlits. Both men are regarded as the kings of fire burnouts, but it was Ivo who really lit the flame. TV Tommy got the ball rolling.
During California’s winter months (yes it can get cold out west), Ivo and his guys used a “smudge pot” full of burning kerosene and a few other chemicals to keep everyone warm while working on the car in the driveway. That led to more tinkering at the racetrack with smudge pot juice. M&H tire’s Marv Rifchin called Ivo one day and suggested Ivo dump bleach in the burn-out box to help with traction. Well, TV Tom did just that and according to him, the smudge pot juice plus Clorox bleach worked well on the launch pad. “If you hit the throttle just right, some of the liquid would catch the headers and create a small flame” Ivo claimed. But Ivo being Ivo, he added some gasoline to the bleach container. The results were sudden and spectacular but with a caveat – his crewman used a match to ensure ignition. As time went on, Ivo got good at dumping the clutch at the precise moment to light the flames without having to use a match. The fire burnout was born.
Ivo got so carried away with the act, at one point he added 5-gallons of gasoline for a fire burnout photo stunt. It made the cover of a magazine. Like most fads, the fire burnout thing faded, giving way to the “dry-hop,” which supplanted the pyrotechnics as the most exciting as-pect of 70s and 80s drag racing. Not familiar with dry hops? Picture two fuel cars approaching the starting line whacking the throttle full bore hopping and “chirping” forward. It was so bitchin!
Flash forward a good 30 years to our Goodguys VRA West Coast Championship Series. When Rich Guasco had a modern version of his “Pure Hell” ’32 Bantam roadster constructed, he and driver Larry Huff were game for any kind of promotion. And in some cases, they were up for publicity stunts. After having them light off Pure Hell outside a bar in downtown San Francisco for a radio stunt, we talked them into upping the ante.
One spring a few days prior to the Goodguys Jim Davis Memorial race at Sears Point, I pitched Guasco on doing an old-school fire burnout with Pure Hell as a stunt to get the local news TV cameras out to the track for some pre-event coverage. Ya know – drum up some hype! To my surprise Rich was more than up for it. He had Larry Huff fly in a day early so they could meet us at the track for the burnout.
Sure enough, here came the Pure Hell gang with the car and a few 5-gallon gas cans. One for each rear tire. As the media started to roll in for the big show, the crew poured the gas down. Huff strapped into the car, Rich made last-minute adjustments and then it was time. The starter was plugged in and a crew guy on each rear tire crouched down with their Bic lighters.
Not wanting to miss a once-in-a-lifetime photo opportunity, I pointed our Pentax 6×7 medium format camera toward the car. We always used that camera because the negatives were 2 square inches, leaving so much more room for clarity and cropping the cover image. As the car started, everyone got ready. The boys lit the gas puddles, but the wind kicked up and only one tire lit up. Huff did the burnout anyway. It wasn’t good.
As stated earlier, Rich was game for anything with that car. We pushed it back to the line and poured down more gas. A LOT more gas. Rich restarted the car, the crew re-lit the flames, and BAM! It erupted in a huge ball of fire as Huff accelerated out of the burnout box. It was a fire burnout for the ages. And being lucky, I got a photo for the ages (seen below).
When the car stopped down track, Huff’s eyebrows were burned off and the right side of the car had melted paint. Rich didn’t care. It was awesome. It made killer pictures and the foot-age ran on the evening news on the local NBC affiliate.
When the Pure Hell fire burnout image was published on the cover of Super Stock and Drag Illustrated, Mike Lewis, who was a lieutenant with NHRA at the time, sent us a letter. Can’t remember much of what the letter said but it’s impossible to forget the sentence that read “DO NOT EVER DO THAT AGAIN!”
We didn’t, and Rich didn’t, but we got a hell of a picture.