Goodguys Top Fuel – A Look Back at the Cars and Stars of Early Nostalgia Drag Racing
Goodguys Top Fuel racing was both exciting and explosive during the ’90s and into the dawn of the new Millennium. However, the first Nostalgia Top Fuel Dragsters Goodguys founder Gary Meadors ever booked for a race were the cars of Pete Kaiser and Howard Haight in Tom Topping’s car. The year was 1987 and the location was long-defunct Baylands Raceway in Fremont, California. Gary booked the cars as the headliner of the Friday Night Hot Rod Drags – a special event held in conjunction with the Goodguys West Coast Nationals street rod show in Pleasanton. Since Kaiser was only 16 years old at the time, Gary was nervous as a cat fearing the worst. But the race came off flawlessly, even though the kid barely had his driver’s license. We doubt if he was legally licensed to race at that point, but the show went on and the crowds loved it. This is a picture of Kaiser two years later at Sears Point.
But the real story of Goodguys Top Fuel began in April of 1989. Goodguys held the 1st Jim Davis Memorial/Brent Davis Benefit at Sears Point. While Jim was tragically killed on his motorcycle in January of that year, Brent was critically injured racing his vintage dragster the year before. Gary Goodguy (center below) joined Brent and friends for a special presentation during that weekend. Funds were raised and the event was successful enough that Goodguys launched out on its course of being Nostalgia Drag Racing’s premier sanctioning body for nearly two decades.
The early Nostalgia Fuelers were crude at best, many of them being original cars from the ’60s with upgraded roll cages as mandated by NHRA/SFI. The cars mostly ran iron 392 Chrysler Hemis yanked from junkyards and were prone to leak all over the track, making for some long, painful days. But as the class stabilized in the mid-1990s, the racers got their stuff together, eventually putting on some great shows.
The series of events gained so much momentum that in 1994, Goodguys brought back the famed March Meet, breathing new life into the historic (albeit mothballed) event. Just prior to that ’94 March Meet, Goodguys made a special announcement. For the next 12 years (1994-2006), Goodguys staged the nation’s premier points series for vintage drag racers at major West Coast drag strips. They called it the West Coast Championship Series. It was glorious and competitive. The prize? Goodguys created a Hemi “Oscar” that soon became a prized possession. The series captivated race fans and gave the sport much-needed stability. It was fiercely competitive and had a bunch of diehard, wildly passionate drag racers willing to spend and do whatever it took to haul ass in style.
The West Coast Championship Series points races varied in location. The March Meet was the anchor event with stops at Sears Point for the Jim Davis Memorial event, Sacramento, Seattle (for a brief two-year stint), as well as stops at Pomona Raceway and the Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Even though it wasn’t tied to the Western points series, Goodguys also made an annual pilgrimage to Indianapolis Raceway Park from 1989 through 2012 for the Hot Rod Happenin’. West Coast teams routinely traveled east to hit the Indy event and the NHRA Hot Rod Reunion at Bowling Green the week after.
These images are from Goodguys archives and run from the first Jim Davis/Brent Davis Memorial Race all the way up to the mid-2000s before Goodguys pulled the plug on the series in 2006.
Back then the cars were mostly still Hemi powered, eventually running an aluminum derivative of the old Donovan 417. Hemi Top Fuel stars of the time pictured in this Time Capsule include Jim Herbert and Ted Taylor’s WWII entry, Jim Murphy (who bought the WWII operation after Jim Herbert passed away in 1999), Gerry Steiner, Mendy Fry and Tim Gibson (who shared the seat of Tom Shelar’s Mastercam entry), Glen Hutchison in Pete Jensen’s Foothill Flyer, Jack “The Sheriff” Harris of Utah, Dale Suhr’s Iowa car, Ty Norton’s “Thumper,” Bill Alexander in John Eirich’s “Ground Zero,” Mike Fuller’s “Westwind” entry with Bill Dunlap in the seat, Butch Blair’s “Fugowie,” John Blanchard’s car, Bob Muravez in John Halstead’s “Western Hoist,” the “Circuit Breaker” with Howard Haight at the wheel, and “Digger” Dan Horan Sr. A fan favorite was “Nitro Neil” Bisciglia who drove a Wisconsin-based Fiat-bodied iron 392 car. It was beyond wild!
Believe it or not, a LOT of guys ran big block Chevys in the ’90s and 2000s. Potent Chevy Fuelers included Brendan Murry (who ran either Top Fuel or Nostalgia Eliminator at every Goodguys race ever held), Lee Jennings, the Birky Bunch, Larry Gotelli, Kent Terry, Kirk Kuhns and Bobby Hanson, Seattle’s Jason Howell, and the most potent Chevy of them all – Jim and Bob McLennan’s Champion Speed Shop Special.
With the Goodguys Top Fuel class being the top draw (the Funny Cars came in around 2004-2005), occasional Fuel Altered participation ensued with guys like Rich Guasco and Ron Hope having nowhere else to run so they joined the fun too.
The characters were numerous in the Nostalgia Top Fuel scene. One of our favorites was Jimmy Boyd and his Red Turkey. Jimmy was a surf dude who came to the track with his fuel dragster on a flatbed trailer and didn’t have so much as a spare piston. But he always made runs and pounded the ground.
After Goodguys stepped away from the big West Coast Championship Series, the class continued on and does to this day racing as part of the NHRA Hot Rod Heritage Series. With the emergence of Nostalgia Funny Cars as Nostalgia Drag Racing’s premier class, the front-engine Top Fuel class started to lose cars. Fearing extinction, the core bunch of dragster racers formed the AAFD Association to protect the brand of front-engine madness.
While the class is still awesome today, nothing could match Nostalgia Top Fuel’s dominance and 20-car fields of the late-’90s and early-2000s. We praise car owners like Bobby McLennan, the late Tom Shelar, Rick McGee, Tony Bartone, Mike Fuller, Dusty Green, Pete Wittenberg, the Hilton family, and a host of others for keeping these “Kings of the Sport” roaring down the 1320.
It’s funny to think of it this way, but we wax nostalgic for the good ‘ol days of Nostalgia Top Fuel racing. In closing, we would be remiss not to mention the VRA Race Directors who served as stewards to all of the VRA program, especially Goodguys Top Fuel. Byron Edwards, Larry Westervelt and Marc Meadors all wore the VRA Race Director cap and carried the class through its glory years. An extra special nod to the late Gary Meadors for spending time and the required resources for world-class venues and tireless promotion to make these racers as successful as he could. Good times!