THE TOD MACK MEMOIRS: NASCAR DRAG RACING - WHAT WENT WRONG? PT. 1
Tod Mack, a former owner of Maryland international Dragway, had his fingerprint on many promotions and innovations from the heralded facility located in Budds Creek, Md.
Mack, whose promotional home runs included the US Pro Stock Open, Mountain Motor Nationals, and The Wild Bunch, solidified his name in the ranks of significant drag racing contributors.
Mack was the first to use a pairings ladder based on qualifying times for the nitro cars when he ran the NASCAR Drag Race Division in the 1960s. Tod and Larry, along with Lex Dudas and Mike Lewis, created the ET Bracket Finals program in the early 1970s, which the group finally turned over to NHRA after a few years. MIR was the winner of the Inaugural event held at York US 30 Dragway. All in all, Tod Mack owned or operated six tracks over his career, and MIR fans benefited from his decades of experience.
In addition to the more successful promotions, Mack and longtime partner Larry Clayton introduced the world to the first four-wide fuel Funny Car match (almost four decades before Bruton Smith did the same thing in Charlotte). Then there was the wacky “Dragzacta,” which allowed fans to take part in pari-mutuel betting on weekly bracket races as they would at a horse track.
Mack was involved in a lot of drag racing.
Today, Mack has shared his memoirs with CompetitionPlus.com recalling his experiences in drag racing. His latest offering focuses on the days when NASCAR entered the drag racing arena. This is the first part of a two-part series.
NASCAR is a genuine American success story. A Washington, DC-based gas station owner with a love for auto racing creates a sports behemoth and becomes a billionaire. The racing organization created in 1948 by Bill France, Sr. revolutionized a rough and tumble backwoods sport that in many ways defined a large section of the country. It became a marketing juggernaut that could seemingly do no wrong for decades as it became one of the most-watched sporting events in the United States.
The hugely successful racing organization needs no introduction to motorsports fans, but how many remember that NASCAR ventured into the drag racing business in the 1960s? The very first NHRA Winternationals was held in Daytona Beach, Fla., in 1960 as a partnership between Wally Parks’ California based NHRA and NASCAR to take advantage of the thousands of race fans in Daytona Beach during Speed Weeks. One of NASCAR’s eventual Top Fuel Circuit stars, Joe Jacono, was a class winner at that event.
The Winternationals effort in 1960 was a conspicuous dud, for a multitude of reasons, and the partnership ended. The race moved to Pomona, CA., and has been there ever since. It must have whetted France’s appetite for drag racing, though, as he launched a far more serious entry back into drag racing within a few years. It was an energetic effort that met with early success, and I was privileged to be a part of it. Unfortunately, all the rest of the principals involved who could add so much to the story are no longer with us. Here is my take and my recollections of some of the events that transpired during that exciting era.
I was a young racer and enthusiast in my 20’s in the early 1960s publishing the very successful weekly Drag Times newspaper in Arlington, VA. I had a partner, Mike Maiatico, another avid drag racing fan who funded the operation. I began hearing rumors about NASCAR trying to straighten out its act (pun intended) by getting back into drag racing. My initial reaction was that it would never happen because of that initial failure in 1960. The idea was tantalizing; however, as I thought of the marketing power such a move could bring to drag racing, The NHRA was far from being a household word while the NASCAR name was synonymous with auto racing across the country. Many of the Fortune 500 companies were already experimenting with NASCAR marketing affiliations, and I felt that this could only be good for our sport.
In 1963, I got a call from a guy named Ed Witzberger whose name I recognized as the owner of the Pittsburgh International Dragway. I knew little else about him but quickly learned that he was one of the most successful stock car track operators in the country with his Heidelberg Raceway in the Pittsburgh area. He began pitching me about a partnership he had struck with Bill France to form a NASCAR Drag Race Division. He knew that to make it successful, he needed a channel of communications to the entire drag racing industry. Drag Times was exactly that, and he hinted that he could make it worthwhile if I “officially” endorsed the NASCAR drag racing program and became its de facto house publication.
I was fiercely independent with Drag Times and never gave a thought to what I felt would be selling out my principles. I was, despite how they may have felt about me then or now, a huge fan of the NHRA and its founder Wally Parks. I thought that an arrangement like that with NASCAR would be unethical. It would also mean giving up the great relationship we had with the dozens of smaller tracks that would probably not move to NASCAR. I was sufficiently interested enough to call back telling Witzberger that we would be most happy to cover all of the events he planned and any other legitimate news items he sent our way. He settled for that but kept reminding me that there could be some great personal and financial rewards if I should change my mind and team up with NASCAR.
He surprised me with yet another offer when he hinted at something that really caught my attention. One of his ideas was to create traveling professional shows that would visit all of his member tracks. The first such show would be a Top Fuel circuit that would offer generous purses to attract the nation’s top drivers. Now he had my attention. I loved the Top Fuel cars and thought that could revolutionize drag racing with NASCAR’s support. We struck a deal for me to figure out how to put such a packaged show together while I continued to publish Drag Times. I was excited, but still a little skeptical about the whole idea and told him I would do some research and get back to him.
He must have sensed my apprehension and the next day said he wanted to fly me to Daytona to meet his partner and kick some ideas around. Wow. Ed Witzberger offered to take me to spend a day talking business with Bill France! Can you imagine what was running through a young man’s mind at that opportunity? I was about to sit down with the two men who would become my mentors and forever change my life.
You should understand that I grew up in a political family in Washington, DC, the son of one of the most influential men on Capitol Hill and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives influential Ways and Means Committee. I sat on President’s laps when I was a kid, and the Kennedys were regulars at our family functions. I knew my way around the halls of Congress and could just walk into many Congressmen and Senator’s offices simply to say hello. I was not the type to be easily impressed by just meeting someone. But I must confess that when I entered that beautiful office overlooking the Daytona Speedway and was so warmly greeted by “Big Bill”, you could have knocked me over with a feather. He offered me a chair and opened by saying that he had heard a great deal about me and wanted to learn more. I was flabbergasted. I began to feel like this was either an interview or an elaborate sales pitch, neither of which I expected.
Witzberger sat surprisingly silent during the meeting with a smile on his face when I glanced at him. France led the conversation with an enthusiastic review of what he and Ed had planned and how he had great confidence in Ed. He then came straight out and said that he felt I could be an essential part of the program, and he would like me to consider joining the team. I was honored, flattered and scared all at once. I fully expected this to be just a chance to sit in on a business conversation. As I look back at the event, I believe now that it was a cleverly calculated maneuver on Ed’s part to win me over — and it eventually worked.
I was not prepared to jump right in and told them so. I made a commitment to a partner to run Drag Times and I couldn’t leave that without knowing there was someone able to take over. I agreed to set up and run the Top Fuel Circuit and assist wherever I could to recruit member tracks while continuing to run the newspaper. Meanwhile, Ed had his right-hand man Walt Mentzer to help him. I thought Walt was capable of assisting Witzberger at that point. Walt was a nice guy who initially talked Ed into opening the Pittsburgh drag strip and managed it for him. He had some history in drag racing. I had heard he was one of the original group that chartered the AHRA but do not know his role in that for sure.
I can’t begin to guess at the number of miles I travelled to Top Fuel races all over the East and Midwest that first season. We jumped right out of the box with a schedule of more than 20 events. I recruited two good friends, Barry Dawson and Jack Redd, to help me with the races and eventually brought Jack into the Drag Times office. The long hours driving overnight to races, then the weekly grind of putting out another issue of the newspaper began to take its toll. I was also working for little or no pay at the newspaper to get it on solid ground, and I was starting a new family with the birth of my first child. NASCAR’s offer was starting to look good. There was very little prospect of the newspaper venture paying me a real wage despite the love and effort I put forth for it. I was at a crossroad. I supplemented my income in those days selling nitromethane to the Top Fuel guys and delivering it to the races. I think Frank LeSeuer, who ran the Grand Stock Circuit took note of that and in later years started the World Wide Racing Fuels business and became a prominent agent who booked Funny Cars into local shows.
A defining moment in my career came during a meeting of all the track owners Ed felt would be critical locations for NASCAR. It was an impressive group, and he asked me to attend. The meeting was held at a hotel in Pittsburg, and Ed pulled out all the stops to impress. He had potential sponsors, ad agency executives and performance managers from the major auto manufacturers there. It was a supreme sales job, the kind that Ed had mastered. And Bill France made sure that support was available. I listened in awe to the early presentations from some New York ad agency guys about how important the NASCAR name was becoming and how drag racing was about to break wide open with their affiliation.
Then Ed caught me completely off guard by introducing me to the group as the guy who would be helping to make all these wonderful things happen. Me, a 24-year-old kid sitting there with hero worship, was asked to address this group. Nervous? That couldn’t come close to describing my feelings. All I can remember from that terrifying experience is that I better come up with something to knock the ball out of the park. I thought of my Dad, and all the times I watched him give extemporaneous talks to large groups and hoped for his guidance. I put my best brave face on and told the attendees what an honor it was to just be in their company while thinking of what I could say that might matter.
Somehow I got an inspiration. I thought about how great it would be to own a track someday and be on the other side of these meetings. A ridiculous idea, of course. One of the things I thought about on the drive up was that the guys in this room could well be getting in on the ground floor of something really big. Ed tossed the word “franchise” around in some of our early meetings, and that intrigued me. At that point, I started to paint a picture to the attendees of what the future could bring for the tracks that went all in right now. I had just read a story about the National Football League and how much those franchises were becoming worth. Since we were in Pittsburgh, I told the story of Ed Rooney investing $500 to start the Steelers franchise and that it was worth a staggering $5,000,000 dollars today. (This was nearly 60 years ago !) Did they want to be the guys who couldn’t see this coming with our program and regret it some day? I certainly hoped not since they were at the threshold of possibly the most significant opportunity ever in motorsports. I easily put all my passion into the story because I really believed it was possible. We had the right guys in the room, the right product, the right management and the full backing of NASCAR and everything that came with that.
To my total surprise I got a rousing round of applause as I finished, I felt like one of those televangelists that just got a big Amen before passing the collection plate. I was relieved, sweating and shocked at what just happened. Ed walked up with a big smile, shook my hand, and I sat down in disbelief. I vividly remember as if it happened yesterday when Ed introduced the next speaker. It was the head of performance marketing at Ford Motor Company, probably the most powerful person in the racing industry at the time. I can’t even remember his name. When he got before the group, he was silent for a few seconds and then he said: “It’s not really fair to be called up after that” referring to my talk. “I just don’t know what to say. That was a powerful message”, he added.
I knew at that moment that the time had come for me to jump in with both feet. I felt I had Ed and Bill’s confidence and that I might be able to make a difference. For the first time in my life, I heard my calling. I informed my family and my partner that I was leaving the moment I got home. I felt Drag Times would be in good hands with Jack Redd there and I never looked back. And, just coincidentally, on my first day at the office, there was a brand new Ford station wagon with the NASCAR logo on it waiting for me.
Walt Mentzer was mysteriously gone, and I was never sure what happened to him. I didn’t ask as I suspected there might have been some falling out between him and Witzberger. I had counted on him as an important ally in the big job ahead. I ran across him several years later when he attempted to start an organization of his own, NAAR, to provide “sanction” services to tracks. I actually joined the NAAR group for a while when I bought Colonial Beach Dragway some years later.
The challenges of getting the new association on solid footing were more significant than I had imagined. The nucleus of member tracks was in place, but that was about it. I discovered that the operating “team” that had to make all this work was pretty slim. Ed Witzberger was the boss. He was a self-made man of strong convictions with a reputation of ruling with an iron hand. He believed in his golden rule that “The One With The Gold Rules.” I don’t say that in any disrespectful way, and that will play into my thoughts about the demise of the organization later. Ed told me several times that as long as you are signing the checks, you call the shots. And he did just that.
The other person who was an integral part of the “team” was Don Dillman, a local sportswriter who served as the publicity man for Ed’s Heidelberg Raceway. Dillman’s job at NASCAR Drag Race Division was to handle all pre and post-race publicity at major events and circuit races. I gained great respect for him and learned a lot about the art of getting “ink” for events. He was also a valued confidante when I needed advice. That was it! Ed, Don and me, along with a bookkeeper and secretary we shared with Witzberger’s E.W. Tire Co. at the Carnegie, PA headquarters.
In a short time we added LeSeuer on a part-time basis to manage our new Grand Stock Circuit, a popular group of full-bodied race cars that toured the member tracks. It was a blend of what would later become Pro Stocks and Funny Cars. It was a big success and drew large crowds. The Grand Stock and Top Fuel circuits were a product of Witzberger’s vision for the young organization. He pioneered a program for professional racers to perform and earn a consistent purse. It was an excellent opportunity for promoters to feature a known and accepted show for their fans. I think that if there is any legacy NASCAR should be credited with it is the formation of the touring racing circuits. Similar groups exist across the country today for a variety of competition classes, and it was all born in Witzberger’s fertile mind.
An enormous amount of work was still required to assemble anything close to a real racing organization with value for its constituents. A rule book had to be created to incorporate the multitude of classes. A technical staff was needed to run and control the National and Regional events that were to be scheduled. I was fortunate to be able to call on an old friend who was a respected engine builder and one-time cam grinder, Roy Chambers, to head that up. The Washington, DC area businessman did a fantastic job and was devoted to the sport. He had able assistance from another D.C. area racer, Bob Luck.
Another task was to recruit businesses interested in racing to partner with us in sponsorships and contingency award programs. Honestly, that proved to be the most time consuming and energy-draining part of the job. Little by little things were completed and a racing season unfolded. There would be plenty of successes and disappointments along the way, but for an upstart group like this to function as a legitimate race sanctioning body in such a short time was miraculous.
The very important job of putting together an insurance program for the member tracks was handled almost wholly by Witzberger. He had the knowledge and the contacts to make it work. It was a revelation to sit in on some of the meetings and negotiations. I got my Masters Degree in understanding terms like subrogation, additional insured. Secondary coverage and a myriad of legal terms that I never had to consider before. That’s what mentors do for you.
COMING IN PART TWO - THE SERIES KICKS OFF