U.S. Nationals Memorable Moments: The Crash

Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Memorable Moments Moment No. 6: Snake Wins, Nicoll Has Wild Ride in 'The Crash' CLERMONT, Ind. -- For years, magicians have entertained live audiences by creating the optical illusion of sawing a body in ...

U.S. Nationals Memorable Moments: The Crash
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Mac Tools U.S. Nationals Memorable Moments
Moment No. 6: Snake Wins, Nicoll Has Wild Ride in 'The Crash'

CLERMONT, Ind. -- For years, magicians have entertained live audiences by creating the optical illusion of sawing a body in half, but those who witnessed the Top Fuel final at the 1970 Mac Tools U.S. Nationals saw the real thing when a clutch explosion split the body of Jim Nicoll's dragster.

The final-round match, which Don Prudhomme won to become only the second driver to score back-to-back NHRA U.S. Nationals Top Fuel titles, was a classic. "The Snake" barely nipped Nicoll, 6.45 to 6.48, and just as the cars crossed the finish line together, a clutch explosion separated the roll cage from the rest of Nicoll's car. With Nicoll still tucked safely inside the driver's compartment, the roll cage flipped over the guardrail and onto the softer grass surface, and with the chutes having already been deployed, the roll cage quickly came to a safe stop.

But from Prudhomme's vantage point, the situation appeared to be much more horrific. The front portion of the vehicle, from the nose to the engine, slid down the track alongside of him as he stopped, with Nicoll no where to be seen.

Obviously alarmed by what he presumed to be a worst-case scenario, Prudhomme tearfully told an interviewer on live television that "this was it" and that he wasn't going to race anymore; a statement that he later retracted when he found out that Nicoll had survived the incident.

Nicoll emerged from the accident with nothing worse than a black eye. After being checked by medical officials, he returned to the racetrack that day.

Said Nicoll after the ordeal, "I remember pulling the chute, and the next thing I knew there were a bunch of people looking over me. It was tough losing a close race like that, but considering everything, it sure could've been a lot worse."

NHRA officials thoroughly examined what was left of Nicoll's roll cage after the accident. Incidents like his and Don Garlits' similar clutch explosion earlier in the year in Long Beach, Calif., are what motivated Garlits to create his successful rear-engine-dragster design in 1971.

Prudhomme won four more Indy titles, in Funny Car, as a driver and two more, in Top Fuel, as an owner with driver Larry Dixon.


The following lists results (Memorable Moments 20-6) to date of an online vote at nhra.com where NHRA POWERade Drag Racing Series fans determined the order of the top 20 Memorable Moments from the last 49 years of the Mac Tools U.S. Nationals, the most prestigious drag racing event in the world. The top five moments will be announced during pre-race ceremonies on Monday, Sept. 6 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

No. 20 -- 1958: Ted Cyr drives outdated 'Old Blue' to winner's circle

Ted Cyr and partner Bill Hopper brought two entries to Oklahoma City, a new lightweight supercharged entry, painted orange, and their old reliable unblown dragster, painted blue with shoe-polished "For Sale" lettered on the nose and driver cowling. The orange car carried the team's primary hopes of winning the "Big Go," while the blue entry was considered spare parts. Cyr piloted both, hopping back and forth between the entries, but it was "old Blue" that carried him to the national championship.

No. 19 -- 1969: Santucci chokes on gum, doesn't choke in final

The late Domenic "D.A." Santucci, a respected Top Gas racer from Pittsburgh who had yet to win a national event, choked on his gum when the chute hit on a qualifying run, and it became lodged in his throat. After surviving that funny but potentially dangerous episode, the future fuel Funny Car independent plowed through a huge field Monday and won the final on former Indy Top Fuel winner Phil Hobbs' foul start.

No. 18 -- 1961: Sneaky Pete's Big Idea

While the majority of his competitors were using horsepower produced from Chrysler engines, "Sneaky" Pete Robinson chose the road less traveled and raced to victory in a lightweight Chevy dragster with a single engine.

No. 17 -- 1974: Marvin Graham stuns TF field

Marvin Graham, an Oklahoma City television repairman unknown to all but the most hardcore drag racing fans, came from nowhere to win the premier category in drag racing's premiere race. He ran a series of competitive 6-teens and 6.0s to win the rain-delayed race on a Tuesday morning and went on to a distinguished career that included three more wins before his retirement in 1982.

No. 16 -- 1966: Snively mirrors the Snake

In the mid-1960s, Indy may have meant more than it does now simply because there were only four nationals per year. Don Prudhomme, driving Roland Leong's Hawaiian dragster, had swept the two biggest races of the season, the Winternationals and Indy, in 1965, then left to form his own Torkmaster team. In 1966, while Prudhomme initially struggled on his own, his replacement in the Hawaiian, the late Mike Snively, defied the odds and duplicated Prudhomme's feat, sweeping both Pomona and Indy in 1966.

No. 15 -- 1955: Calvin Rice wins the first U.S. Nationals

The one that started it all: NHRA's first National Champion was crowned in a race that began on the 8,000-foot runway at the Great Bend Municipal Airport in Kansas and finished two months later in Arizona, where 25-year-old Calvin Rice of Santa Ana, Calif., defeated Fred Voight.

No. 14 -- 1991: The Impossible Double

Dominating Top Alcohol Funny Car racer Pat Austin nearly pulled off an amazing double category win when he entered the U.S. Nationals in both Top Alcohol Funny Car and Top Fuel. After winning the AFC title moments earlier, Austin's dragster, which he purchased from the estate of the late Gary Ormsby, broke at the start of the burnout in the Top Fuel final. An emotional Austin climbed from his car and watched helplessly from the guardwall as Kenny Bernstein rolled on for the unopposed victory.

No. 13 -- 1967: First Funny Car eliminator

Doug Thorley dominates a talented Funny Car field in a true Chevy-powered entry. NHRA used the U.S. Nationals as the backdrop for the first Funny Car eliminator.

No. 12 -- 1963: Introducing the Christmas Tree

Teenager Bobby Vodnik, acting on a tip that revealed the Christmas Tree would be used in place of flag starters for the first time at the '63 U.S. Nationals, was the surprise winner after the 19-year-old driver put months of pre-race practice into perfecting his reaction time to the new device. Ironically, Vodnik's final round opponent, Don Garlits suffered a red-light start in the final.

No. 11 -- 1972: The Rookie

Top Fuel rookie Gary Beck surprised everyone with an upset over Jerry Ruth in the final round. Holding his NHRA competition license for only two weeks, Beck promptly entered the biggest drag race of them all and earned his first victory in his pro debut.

No. 10 -- 1976: Burgin ends Snake's streak

Gary Burgin, a Southern California veteran who always ran hard but never won any national events or appeared in any final rounds, stunned Don Prudhomme in the Funny Car finale, handing "the Snake" his only loss in what still stands as the greatest season in the sport's history, regardless of category. Prudhomme hazed the tires and suffered what would be his only loss from September 1975 to March 1977.

No. 9 -- 2001: Big Daddy Returns, Part II

At age 69, Big Daddy Don Garlits returned to competition at the U.S. Nationals during the NHRA's celebration of its 50th Anniversary. He accomplished his mission in clocking a performance quicker than five seconds and faster than 300 mph. Paired for the qualifying round alongside another ageless veteran, 71-year-old Chris Karamesines, Garlits steered Gary Clapshaw's dragster to a time of 4.720 seconds at 303.37 mph. Earlier in the weekend, Garlits squared off in another memorable qualifying round with Shirley Muldowney, as the pair were given the green light by original NHRA Safety Safari member and longtime NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch.

No. 8 -- 1988: Bob Glidden dominates Indy

Bob Glidden earned his fourth consecutive U.S. Nationals victory, and his ninth overall at the prestigious event. The win was Glidden's 12th consecutive final round appearance at the U.S. Nationals, one of the most remarkable final round runs in NHRA history.

No. 7 -- 1971: The Burndown

Steve Carbone and Don Garlits pull to the starting line for the Top Fuel final and one of the most intense staging duels begins. Prior to the final round, Carbone insisted that he would not stage first in response to a Garlits-psyche job that he felt cost him the 1968 Top Fuel final. Carbone out-waited Garlits in one of the most dramatic burndowns in NHRA history. When the race finally started, Carbone's strategy paid off as he rumbled to the victory over the heavily-favored Big Daddy.

No. 6 -- 1970: The Crash

After Don Prudhomme wins a close final round encounter over Jim Nicoll, 6.45 to 6.48, a clutch explosion on Nicoll's car sends debris in all directions as his car was speeding along at more than 225 mph. What was left of his slingshot dragster slid hundreds of feet to a stop. Nicoll emerged from the wreckage with only bumps and bruises.


1967: Big Daddy Loses His Beard

After failing to qualify at the Springnationals earlier in the season, Don Garlits vowed not to shave his beard until he ran his first six-second run. Garlits used some Indy magic to record his first six-second run (6.77 seconds) when he needed it the most, in a final round win over rival James Warren, who clocked a 6.95. Ironically, it was Warren who gave Garlits a fresh set of tires for eliminations. Before the memorable final, Garlits offered to return the tires, but the confident Warren declined. Following the round, 20,000 fans cheered as Garlits' beard was shaved off in a dramatic winner's circle celebration.

1978: Mongoose bites Snake

Still shaken by the death of his son Jamie to leukemia weeks earlier, Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen earned the biggest victory of his career, defeating storied Hot Wheels rival Don "The Snake" Prudhomme. Ironically, it was Prudhomme that offered support for the still-grieving McEwen and encouraged him to enter the event as a form of therapy. For McEwen, who clocked a career-best run of 6.05 seconds during the final round meeting, the victory avenged a lifetime of being outperformed by Prudhomme.

1982: Shirley's Victory

Shirley Muldowney defeated former companion and crew chief Connie Kalitta in this legendary grudge match. At the time, an emotional Muldowney called the victory "the race of her life."

1982: Snake Clocks the Run of All Time

With engine oil trailing in his wake, Don Prudhomme made what most fans still consider the run of all time, regardless of category. He clocked a 5.63-second effort, nearly two-tenths of-a-second better than any Funny Car had run prior.

1984: Big Daddy Returns, Part I

After a lull in his drag racing career which had him contemplating retirement, Big Daddy Don Garlits, 52, returned to form with a final round victory over Connie Kalitta. The win sparked Garlits to earn U.S. Nationals titles the next two seasons and back-to-back NHRA championships in 1985-'86. Garlits won the U.S. Nationals eight times during his storied Top Fuel career.


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