BRUINS, McGEE INDUCTED INTO NHRA DIVISION 6 HALL OF FAME
For 29 years, until Eddie Krawiec came along in the Pro Stock Motorcycle class, Top Fuel racer Rob Bruins had the distinction of being the only racer to win a championship without winning a single event in that same season. Bruins had another unique footnote to his career – he was one of the few who never lost to Jerry Ruth, the Northwest’s self-proclaimed King and 10-time NHRA Division 6 champion.
Anyone who attended a 1980 Northwest points race knew it, thanks to Gaines Markley.
Those fans saw Ruth outperform the competition in his brand-new Al Swindahl-built dragster that featured A-arms on the front. Terry Capp had just won the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis with the design. But Bruins refused to bow to the King – he beat Ruth in the final round. When Bruins climbed from his dragster following that pass, he told business partner Markley, “Well, I guess the King is still dead.”
Bruins said, “Back then we didn’t have computers, so most of the time after each run it was ‘Hey, what did you think? What happened on the run?’ ”
But not this time. Markley latched onto Bruins’ top-end one-liner.
“All the way back to the pits,” Bruins said, “all I heard out of Gaines was ‘Yes! The King is still dead!’ That was pretty cool.”
For those career highlights and many more, Bruins, of Bremerton, Wash., was inducted Saturday night in Seattle to the Northwest Division (Division 6) Hall of Fame, along with former Top Fuel and Top Alcohol Funny Car pioneer Steve McGee, of Pendleton, Ore.
Bruins’ debut was in July 1976 at a Professional Dragster Association event at Fremont, Calif. He worked his way through a 32-car Top Fuel field and defeated “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in the final round. He had just gotten his dragster license the week before after landing the Olympia Brewery-sponsored ride when Herm Petersen gave up driving. He had worked on cars for Ruth and Petersen and was campaigning an alcohol Funny Car with Jim Wright when he got the chance to driver Petersen’s dragster. “Nobody knew who I was in drag racing until I started driving for Herm Petersen in 1976,” Bruins said.
The next year, Bruins drove a Funny Car – Jim Green’s “Green Elephant” entry – and won at Boise. But he returned to Top Fuel at the end of that 1977 season and joined forces with Markley for their eight-victory assault during the next two years.
That feat is especially remarkable. Bruins won four of five Division 6 events and the Division 6 championship (along with two NHRA national events) in 1978. In 1979, he followed by winning four of six division races. Then came his lone NHRA Top Fuel title.
Bruins took a decade-long hiatus, ditching the pro ranks following the 1982 Winternationals at Pomona. He came back in 1991 and drove a Competition Eliminator entry for the Byron Brothers of Hoquiam, Wash., until 1993. That partnership produced several national elapsed-time records and an eighth-place finish nationally.
Bruins is thought to be the only NHRA racer with the possible exception of Jim Head, to claim victories in Top Fuel, Funny Car, and Comp Eliminator.
“It’s neat to be honored, especially with Steve McGee,” Bruins said. “He’s a neat guy.”
McGee, who ultimately left the sport to become a café owner in Pendleton, Ore., ordered regularly from a racing menu of dragstrips and car classes throughout his career from the 1970s to the ’90s. He set West Coast records from Boise to Pomona, competing in the C Gas and A Gas categories, jumping to Top Fuel dragster, and making a real mark in the Northwest as an Alcohol Funny Car dominator.
That was a quantum leap from his teenage days, when McGee tore up the back roads near Pendleton, as aggressive as an ornery steer from the town’s famous rodeos, in hi 1949 Mercury Lead Sled. He entered that battleship with the 331-cubic-inch Chrysler Hemi engine in his first drag race and wisely dialed down to a 283-ci Chevy-powered 1940 Ford his dad helped him buy. He set both ends of the C Gas national record in that car.
After five years racing that, he opted to build for the A Gas class a 1933 Willys – this time going whole-hog with a hunkin’ 480-ci Hemi. With that, he was the man to beat across the Northwest and Western Canada for the next five seasons.
Eventually he caught the nitro bug and entered the Top Fuel ranks in the mid-1970s. In his first race, at Eugene, Ore., McGee defeated Gary Beck and Jeb Allen, both established headliners. Hard to forget from those days was the record-setting tuner-driver’s Black Beauty wedge dragster, a rare design. Unfortunately, costs then were just as burdensome, proportionately, as they are today. So McGee joined forces with buddy Norm Christiansen.
They switched to the Alcohol Funny Car division and put together a Chevy Monza that brought the lion’s share of trophies in the Northwest for another five years. In 1978, Jeff Yardley bought into the operation – which became M.C.Y. Racing – and introduced the computer age to McGee’s efforts. Back before Hot Rod Fuller had his DiGiorno sponsorship and Leah Pritchett coaxed drag-racing-enthusiast entrepreneuer John Schnatter away from his Papa John’s Pizza empire and back to the dragstrip, McGee delivered in a quick Z-28 Camaro for sponsor Tom Devlin and his SunShine Pizza Exchange, out of Wilsonville, Ore.
The media loved that sponsor. A Drag Racing magazine article from 1985 used all the same catch phrases modern journalists have done with Pritchett: a headline that screamed, “He Delivers!” and a subhead that read, “All Steve McGee Ever Needed Was A Little Bit Of Dough.” He was, by comparison, underfunded.
But no matter how anyone sliced it, McGee gave “Bad Brad” Anderson and the Northwest’s iconic Austins, the top guns of the day, an honest run for their money.
One of his proudest accomplishments was his performances in the mid-1990s with his AA/Gas class car on the Super Chevy Tour. In 1996, he won every round of racing and recorded low elapsed times and tops speeds. The history books point to 64 rounds – a record that has been challenged since but never broken.
In a surprise presentation Saturday night, longtime Bremerton racer and businessman Dave Barcelon was the inaugural recipient of the NHRA Northwest Division 6 Mark Lyle Hidden Hero Award.
The honor is named for the late NHRA Official Starter and former Division 6 starter who lost his life while trying to rescue a swimmer in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Mexico last spring while on vacation. It is awarded to an individual who contributes significantly throughout the division but doesn’t seek recognition.
Division 6 Director Matt Levonas made the presentation, along with current Division 7 and former Division 6 Director Mike Rice. Rice, who also was a starter years ago, is the son of Ray Rice, the Northwest’s chief starter from the 1970s and ‘80s who retired and yielded the job to Lyle. Mike Rice emceed the event at the DoubleTree by Hilton at Sea-Tac, just south of Seattle.
Barcelon, who began racing in 1969, has competed in every NHRA sportsman class except Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car. He even took a break from drag racing and won several events in the NASCAR Northwest Legends Series. In 2007, he earned the NHRA’s Jeg’s Allstar championship at Route 66 Raceway at Joliet, Ill. Barcelon was named Bremerton Raceway’s Racer of the Year in 2011.
In addition to his own feats behind the dragstrip, Barcelon is owner of Truck Town, a Bremerton auto sales establishment that’s starting its 37th year of business. He has sponsored about 50 sportsman cars, including those of Stock / Super Stock / Super Gas standout Jody Lang, and advertises at virtually every track in the division.