TWO NHRA SUPERSTARS REMEMBER BILL DONER
Word started to make its way around the Brainerd International Raceway pits on Friday afternoon that legendary and popular drag racing promoter Bill Doner had passed away.
Doner, the credit driving force behind 64 Funny Car Shows, had a profound effect on many drag racers, business associates, and race fans. Two iconic drag racers remember the man known simply as the Dones. Saturday, John Force and Ron Capps were all too eager to talk about the man who put Funny Car racing on the map in the 1970s.
Force met Doner as a struggling drag racer in that era, just hoping to get a place in one of Doner’s iconic Funny Car shows up and down the Pacific seaboard.
The unfortunate aspect of Force’s race endeavors in 1977 and 1978, is that most of his racing was either covered in oil or fire. This didn’t stop Force from trying to be a star, a status Doner could deliver through his booked-in shows and the radio ads which flooded the regions.
“I didn’t go to National events back then I was just getting started,” Force recalled. “But he could make you a star; he could build you up to make you a star.”
Or in Force’s case, Doner could deliver a big dose of reality.
“He could tell you to take your race car fishing, flip it upside down and make it a boat,” Force recalled. “It was a better boat than a race car. Oh, he was a tough promoter. But he packed them in week after week.
“It was unbelievable. Rock bands playing. Helicopters were bringing Raymond Beadle, and he’s running over the rooftops. Only Doner could put that together. He was tough, but he was always fair. He always paid us. He knew I was a little guy coming up. I remember when he said, “you always oil the track, so you’re carrying the grease sweep to Seattle.”
It remains uncertain which attracted Force more to the Doner shows; the chance to be a star or the wild stuff which often ensued.
“The girls running out to the car looking in the window, header fire out both sides and here’s some girl there in a halter top looking through the window and then one on the other side,” Force recalled. “Oh, they did stuff that they don’t do today. But it was crazy, but we got away with it, and it was just an unbelievable time for me. I was young.
“Doner used to say, “I can’t get this kid off the phone,” until he told me I was booked.”
Force tried his best to get featured in Doner’s famous radio commercial spots.
“First time I showed I said “I’m gonna be in the ads this week, you promised,” Force recalled. “It said ‘Don Prudhomme, Mongoose, Raymond Beadle, Jungle Jim, and many more.”
“I said, “you cut me out again.” He responded, “You were many more, and that was a true story.” He said, “one day kid I’ll advertise you, right now haul my grease sweep.”
“That’s how we lived. But he always treated me with respect. He’d say, “I don’t know if you’re going to make it. You probably kill yourself first. But I love your energy. Just keep trying. You might make it someday.”
Ron Capps remembers Doner, but not in the same fashion as Force. He saw Doner’s incredible 64 Funny Car shows and credits them as the inspiration for his professional drag racing career.
“Going to places like OCIR, the days when you would look out and they would be 64-plus Funny Cars firing up at the same time on the track before they even ran and it was on into the night,” Capps recalled. “You talk about a childhood of being able to sit in the grandstand and watch over 64 Funny Cars go side by side throughout the night, not counting all the Top Fuel cars.”
Capps, when Ed McCulloch was his crew chief, will forever cherish the moment when his tuner and Doner got together to talk the good old days.
“I got to hear those stories that I’ve read about, but I got to hear the real stories,” Capps said. “The unedited, non-rated PG, if you will. You read about in the magazines, you heard people certainly talk about them in interviews, but I got to hear him out of the horse’s mouths and some of them I could probably never repeat.”
As Capps sees it, there will never be another Doner.
“Right now I’m sure he’s up there with Steve Evans and Beadle and those guys, and they’re probably at the coolest dive bar that there is and just hanging out telling stories,” Capps said. “It’s another Legend we’ve lost.