In the Bob Nugent
It was a cow pasture called the Golden Triangle Dragstrip The morning was crisp and clear, a rarity in Florida. The still of the morning was broken by the far off sound of car engines turning all the rpm's that could be squeezed from the screaming and mighty power of a pair of 1956 automobiles. On the left was a shiny, black Pontiac hardtop, and on the right was a custom Ford tudor painted Sierra Gold.
The Road was Deserted
and as the pair of rods flew past the horse track, a lone horse raised it head to the sound breaking the calm of that country morning. It was several miles out that road to the cut-off that took you to the drag strip, and plenty of room to let the engines wind.
The Guys in those Cars Knew ....
that they should not be doing what they were doing, but there seemed to be nothing that they could do about it. It just had to be done, someone had to win.
I would tell you who won, but I forgot!
It really doesn't matter who won... what matters is that I can remember the feeling of flying down that road, flat out and going to the dragstrip on Sunday morning. We did this every sunday morning back then. We went to the Golden Triangle Drag Strip in Oldsmar, Florida and made drag racing history.
Do you think I exaggerate when I say that we made history?
I think not! This was a cow pasture, out in the boondocks, in between nowhere and noplace, but we were making history. My buddy Larry Davis and I, were the flaggers at Golden Triangle and that was a heady thing in those days. Standing in front of a pair of backyard engineered racers and flagging them off was a cool but dangerous business.
Well, getting back to the history part, Larry and I flagged off the absolute elite of the drag racing fraternity. The advantage of the Golden Triangle Drag Strip was that it was virtually in the backyard of Don Garlits. Before he was known as "Big Daddy", he was known as the "Swamp Rat", a name given him by the dudes in California. Occasionally, He would come to the track to test his car out and collect $100because he usually took top eliminator. He was not particularly fond of the track and made that fact known, but being a racer, he went where he had to become the legend that he became in the drag racing world.
The drag racers of the world came to that track to choose off the king. I remember flagging Garlits, Chris Karamesines, Connie Kalitta, Art Malone, Connie Swingle, "T.V." Tommy Ivo, (twin-engine, and four-engine Buick dragster) and a bunch more that I can't remember.
I also remember Don Prudomme, but he wasn't driving then, he was the crew driver for Ivo.
My personal favorite was a local guy by the name of Ed Pantley. Ed had a little Chevy-powered dragster and was without a doubt the crowd favorite. He had a set of barbell weights bolted to the front of the dragster to keep it from doing wheelies! Every once in a while he would say, "well, it's time to please the crowd" and he would take off the weights and carry the front wheels half way down the track, and the crowd would go crazy. This was before wheel standers and actually a new phenomenon. We got to the point that if the show slowed down and we had a delay, we would ask Ed to do a wheelie and the crowd would go nuts and everything would be all right.
I think that my most vivid memory was one winter, we had a big meet and had several of the big name racers came down from the north and we had a packed house. For some reason I was the only flagger that day and I was one skinny and nervous kid. I was standing in the middle of the track and as I looked around, I saw literally thousands of people lining the edges of the quarter mile track.
The track was narrow with banks on each side close to the track, so it seemed very tight and crowded. I had been flagging all day and we were down to the Top Eliminator run-off. As I looked toward the starting line, I watched as Chris Karamesines pulled to the line. A club member on the left lined him up and brought him to the line. On the right, came Don Garlits slowly, ever slowly, inching to the line. A club member on the right waved him up to the line, but Garlits paid no attention to him and continued his slow dance to the starting line. He would line up when he was good and ready and not a second before.
Garlits was a great racer, but his true calling was psyching out the competition. As I and the crowd waited, I could feel the sweat pouring down my back, and I can still feel my right leg shaking!Remember, this was long before christmas tree starting lights. The flagger was the ultimate power, and that was me. Gulp! Garlits waited till the last moment just before both cars overheated and rolled exactly to the line, not one inch one way or the other, no several tries, but exactly to the line, boom! ready. I held the green flag to the ground with my left hand as I pointed with the red flag in my right hand. First to Karamesines, he nods. Then to Garlits, he nods. I place the red flag next to the green flag, both pointed down to the ground. As the revs of the engines rose to a mindblowing blast of sound, only I knew when that flag would go up. The exact second before I decided to raise the flag, Garlits was gone. So was the "Chizler". I had a problem. Every eye on that track was looking right at me. Every person at that track had an opinion about whether Garlits had jumped the flag. My problem was that I was the only person there that could decide whether he had or not.He had.
I began to wave the flags. A roar went up.They had to run it over. That's it! no question, no flincing, call'em like I see'um. I wish that right leg would quit shakin! Run it over, call em back, don't mess with me, I'm the flagger.
Garlits' wife Pat drove out to tow him back. Her eyes were straight ahead, no reaction as she drove past me on the track to bring him back. I was told later by the guys at the far end of the track that the "Swamp Rat" was not a happy camper. As he was towed back past me towards the pits to cool down, I had saw two eyes stare a hole right through me. So they had to run again. Who won? I forgot. Everthing past that point is gone from my memory, lost forever. Anticlimatic to my moment in the sun. Andy Warhols five minutes of fame. Oh.Well.
I'm sure Don has mellowed over the years, but I am here to tell you, he was one intense racer back then. I was one scared kid that day.
The drag strip was run by a car club called the Blockbusters and they were quite an organization. Young guys who loved cars and really got down to business. They put on car shows, ran the drag strip, bought their own building, quite an industrious group.
The strip was not sanctoned by the National Hot Rod Association, therefore any runs made there were not official. Garlits actually set a worlds record one day, but because we weren't sanctioned the record wasn't recognized. A few month's later he broke the record at a track on the west coast and it was official. I can't remember whether it was 160 MPH or 180 MPH . I think it was 160 because there was a magazine article at the time that stated it was scientifically impossible to reach over 160 MPH in the quarter, so it was a big deal.
I recently went out to where all this happened and stood in the same spot that I flagged years ago and that was quite a feeling. Abandoned now, the strip has junk parked all over and little of the track remains. Just the memories
Not all the memories are fond ones. Two people lost their lives at that track. I remember a lot of fist fights. I am haunted by the memory of a separate section for black people.
I visited Don Garlits fabulous museum a few years ago, and I stood staring at the "Swamp Rat" I saw a poster above it on the wall that advertised the Golden Triangle Drag Strip. In another room I stared at a skinny kid standing beside Garlits at a dragstrip in Brooksville,FL . It was me. (Bob Nugent)
If you have photos or stories of the Golden Triangle Drag Strip, or any of the strips from the past we would love to hear from you.