Force, NHRA Circus, Return to BIR This Week

John Gilbert

The late Gary Ormsby survived a fiery crash when his Top Fuel dragster's engine blew just off the starting line at Brainerd Internatinal Raceway in the late 1980s.
The late Gary Ormsby survived a fiery crash when his Top Fuel dragster's engine blew just off the starting line at Brainerd Internatinal Raceway in the late 1980s.

In the first few years of the 31 I spent writing about sports at the Minneapolis Tribune, I covered Twin Cities stock car racing and learned that a retired airline pilot named George Montgomery had decided to build a road-racing track up in the resort country north of Brainerd.  We became fast friends, so to speak, because I was a one-man motorsports fanatic in the summertime during the break from my winter-long fanaticism for hockey.

George Montgomery loved road-racing, and he owned a Cobra, one of those old 2-seat AC sports cars with a 427 cubic inch Ford V8 engine crammed under the hood. George wanted somewhere to go fast, so he built the 3-mile road course on Hwy. 371 with a mile-long straightaway, ending with a sweeping banked turn that, if you had enough courage, you could take flat out.

After a few years, things got tough at the track, because it cost a lot to put on a good pro road race, so I suggested he should contact the NHRA about putting on a big drag race, a National. George wouldn’t hear of it, because road-racers thought little of stock car racers, and less of drag racers. Not long after that, he reconsidered. I told him to calculate how much money he’d have to raise for a road race, then realize that if he staged a big drag race, guys would come from miles around and actually pay an entry fee to compete, and if you gave the winners a plastic trophy, they’d be back the next year.

So he did it, and after a couple of pretty big all-class drag race shows, the NHRA hooked cup to bring a National event there. The drivers loved it, because they were used to the hustle and bustle of Pomona, or Gainesville, or various other big city locations, and they couldn’t believe the hospitality and serenity they could find at the many resorts near Brainerd.

It got to be the biggest event of the year, and kept Donnybrooke alive for a few more years. Nowadays, the Montgomery family and their well-chosen working staff are a thing of distant memories, and after two new owners, the track is hardly the same. They still have the 3-mile layout, but then use a shortened 2-mile part for any road races. The only thing still the same is the NHRA National, a season-long circus of horsepower and thundering Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock racers, and all the stock class racers who put on an amazing show between rounds of the pro eliminations.

There have been so many spectacular highlights from the drag races that it’s impossible to even try to recount them. My favorite was when they had some rain drench the track on Friday before it started to dry out in late afternoon. They did everything then could to dry it out so they could at least get in one round of qualifying in the pro categories. Brainerd, because of its altitude and the road-race surface that was pretty slippery for dragsters, had never housed any major national records — not against the sea-level strips on the West Coast.

But that night, the air was heavy under low-hanging clouds when they lit up the Top Fuel dragsters, and then made so much power in the dense air that flames shot 10 feet out of their exhaust tubes. And with that, theh clicked off the 13 fastest Top Fuel times in BIR history, and set the national record. It was so spectacular that the NHRA decided to make Friday night qualifying mandatory at ever event thereafter.

There were some tragic stories, too. John Hagen, a popular St. Paul racer who dueled Warren Johnson in Pro Stock for years even before Donnybrooke was built, made a strong run. But near the end, the rear differential on Hagen’s car broke free and spun up from behind him, striking Hagen in the back of his helmet. He died from his injuries.

Another horrifying crash occurred in the late 1980s, when Gary Ormsby, a popular California driver who was a national contender, made a loud burnout and backed up for the start. I was standing down just off the track’s left side, safely behind a concrete barrier wall. As they left the starting line, Ormsby’s engine blew up in a big way. I ducked, but quickly clicked off a few photos. Most of them were completely obscured by smoke, but I happened to find one just a few days ago, while looking for something else stored in my garage.

We all feared for Ormsby as he was carted away and hospitalized, but he recovered and came back to racing, winning the 1989 national championship. Ormsby was fighting cancer in his final years, and it took his life in 1991 at age 49.

The excitement and the good times far outnumbered the scary times, and the relative safety of drag racing has come to make the concept of going faster than 300 miles per hour in a quarter-mile dash has become so commonplace that fans often overlook the inherent dangers. 

The NHRA tour, with its color and noise and danger, comes to BIR this weekend, with runs starting Thursday, getting serious about qualifying Friday, more serious on Saturday, when the brackets are determined from all the qualifying runs, with eliminations all Sunday afternoon, national television and all.

I remember, among my favorites, was when a brash, loud, funny character named John Force started driving his first Funny Cars. He always had great success at BIR, as well as everywhere else on the national tour, and whether he did well or not, he always commanded the spotlight. I happened to catch the final round of the Pro categories from the most recent National, in Kent, Wash., on satellite television last Sunday. I always try to catch the Pro Stocks, because they are the most competitive, running without the supercharged, nitro-burning engines of Top Fuel or Funny Car.

Also, we cheer from a distance for the prominent Summit Racing team out of Charlotte, with Greg Anderson of Duluth in one Camaro, and Jason Line of Wright — a tiny town on Hwy. 210 between Duluth and Brainerd — in a matching car. Jason Line comes from the all-time racing family, and when he first started racing in a rare Buick Skylark, his stock eliminator competition included his mother, father, sister and two brothers — all in different stock classes. But almost every meet saw them running up against each other in eliminations.

It’s been a decent year for Anderson, after a rocky start, and he is in contention for the season championship. Line has struggled to find the right combination and has been in contention without much success. Both of them will be shooting to get everything together this weekend, with the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis next up. Anderson lost in the final at Kent, so he’s determined to go one round farther this weekend.

At the last race, John Force, who turned 70 in May, and has watched two daughters grow ump and become pro champion drivers of a new generation, won his 150th NHRA Funny Car championship. Think about that. The milestone turned Force into a kid again, and he reacted like it was his first victory. Force was so excited he ran away from the television interview crew and scaled a fence that was 8 feet high, toppling over it and falling in a heap. He jumped up and ran over to his adoring supporters. He had beaten long-time rival Ron Capps in the final with a quarter-mile dash in 3.971 seconds, hitting 320.58 miles per hour.

Make no mistake, the loud, ground-shaking Top Fuel and Funny Cars will be the prime attraction that will lure nearly 100,000 fans to the north woods this weekend. A year ago, BIR became the site for first-time victories in Top Fuel, where Billy Torrence won, in Funny Car, where Jack Beckman won, and in Pro Stock, where Deric Kramer conquered an entire bracket of high-profile opponents. Billy Torrence’s son, Steve, won last season’s season title and has been strong this season, but the others are trying to regain last year’s good fortune in the north woods.

But in Duluth, everybody will be pulling for Greg Anderson and Jason Line to qualify strong and go for the victory in Pro Stock. If then face each other, so mucn the better, because one of them will have to win.