Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Jon Lundberg Interview

Once you've dominated your field, you're known by your nickname. This guy's nickname is Thunderlungs. His title is The Voice of Drag Racing. From unpaved Michigan strips(!) to the world's most prestigious motorsports events, Lundberg's been there and done it. He's now living large in Arizona. (Photo courtesy of Jon Lundberg)

Jon and I trudged up the stairs to the tower at Champion Raceway and kicked back behind the microphones to let the Q & A echo throughout the empty facility, while watching track manager Jim Taylor cruise around on his new tractor.

 Most everyone knows who you are, but where’d you come from?  How did you get involved with racing and announcing in particular?

 I grew up in East Lansing, MI (home to Michigan State University), third generation son of a Swedish immigrant family brought to Lansing by Ransom E. Olds to make threaded and ground parts for Oldsmobile and REO motor vehicles. That matured into a family business, the Lundberg Screw Products Company.
Walking home from sixth grade one May afternoon in 1949, a chopped and channeled deuce three-window drove by me. Something clicked and I haven’t been the same since. One year later my pal John Hicks and I rode our motorbikes out gravel section roads to Lansing’s Capitol City Airport and watched an early drag race that pitted our Lansing Pan Draggers against one of the nation’s pioneer hot rod clubs, the Genessee Gear Grinders from nearby Flint. Top Eliminator that day was a GMC-powered sprint car on alcohol.
Over the next three years, my dad took us to events held by the Michigan Hot Rod Association on Ecorse Road, a four lane (boulevard-separated) highway that ran from Ypsilanti to Ann Arbor. 
They’d race West-to-East for awhile and use the East-to-West lanes as a return road. Less than legal, but it worked.
In 1954, the NHRA Safety Safari held the quintessential drag race in my state: the NHRA Regional in Livonia (a Detroit suburb) on the ¾-mile, four lane concrete entrance road to a yet-to-be-completed GM plant. I attended that event working with a Public TV station’s kinescope team who came to film the action. It was there I first smelled Nitromethane and again, I haven’t been the same since.
Between 1953 and 1955 I built three cars of my own, a '29 A roadster pickup, a '34 Ford Victoria, and my college car – a 1950 Olds standard 2-door. In 1955, I chose college instead of building a dragster and was then encouraged by mentor Roger Huntington to accompany him to an unpaved new drag strip in the state’s middle area. Roger asked me to simply get on the PA system and talk about cars. I did that, liked it and the rest, as they say, is history. That flying farmer landing strip became known as Central Michigan Dragway and continues vital to this day as the Mid Michigan Motorplex.

With NHRA’s high profile, it’s surprising that “The Voice of Drag Racing” worked for every sanctioning body but NHRA. Is that accurate, and – if so – why?

 Their choice in the beginning, mine in the end. In 1962, while working at Onondaga Dragway, the track was visited by the midwest NHRA Regional Director. I asked him, quite politely, if I might be able to assist announcing the Nationals at Indy. His answer was much less than cordial. I then wrote Jim Tice, President of the American Hot Rod Association, the same question. An endorsement from Walter Arfons sealed the deal and I was off to the 1963 AHRA Winter National in Phoenix as a ride along with AA/FMR racers Noah Canfield and Charlie Johnson of “Glass Chariot” fame. They were also headed for Bakersfield, home of the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships (aka The March Meet), produced by the Smokers car club. I’d been reading about the event for two years in Drag News and was excited to go along, just to hear that event’s announcer, Bernie Mather, and see the sport’s premier fuel drag race.

I hung on every word both he and Al Caldwell spoke on Friday and Saturday. On Saturday night, it was a tradition that the Smokers held a party at the “Wool Growers” restaurant. It was run by a Basque family who brewed their own wine in the basement. It came to the table with screw-on caps, no label, and met no federal standard – but it was great stuff! Apparently, both Bernie and Al over-consumed, because neither was doing too well on Sunday morning. Finally, about 10:00 AM, Bernie leaned out of the tent-on-sticks tower of that day and moaned, “Lundberg, we’re hurtin’ – get up here and take over for awhile”. They stumbled out and were gone for six hours. Now, here I am, little Jonny Lundberg from East Lansing, Michigan, local drag race announcer, all alone with the greatest collection of fuel and gas drag racers ever assembled, with overflow grandstands there to see, hear and be informed. It was very similar to being the last talent standing on American Idol. And I soared!  I SOARED! And at the after party, also at the Wool Growers, they took up a collection from among the members and gave me 100 bucks of their own pocket money in tribute. If there had been any doubt, there was none now.  I was off and running.

                         Hangin' at the tower. 1964 AHRA Winternationals at Beeline Dragway. (Photo by Bill Turney)

Then, of course, there was the crowd control incident at the 1965 Super Stock Nationals that got blown way out of proportion and convinced the West Coast establishment that I was a loose cannon. And so I just did every other meet of significance the sport offered – and at that time there were many.
Thanks to Bernie Partridge, I did finally join NHRA's major event announcing team for four events during 1987. Previous to that, when they expanded to 12 events in 1972, I announced 42 separate drag race events! ‘Nuff said.

      Interviewing Don Garlits in 1965 for the first ever Pay-per-view drag race TV coverage. (John Durand photo)

Don Garlits had some legendary pissing matches with NHRA. Did you and he follow the same path to the other sanctioning bodies? Are you and Don friends?

Yes, Don and I are friends. That we trod similar paths was simply a product of our shared highly independent nature. Our movements were not concurrent, but we were both drawn to where the money was good and the action strong.

                             With hero Bernie Mather at the 1966 March Meet. (Photo courtesy of Jon Lundberg)

Some of drag racing’s most colorful characters weren’t even racers. People like yourself, Porky the Pirate, Bob Beezer (the Canadian Indian), Linda Vaughn and Jungle Pam Hardy. Have you had any dealings with these people, or others we might not know of?

Over the period from 1955 through 2001, I had the pleasure to know and become friends with all those and many more unique beings that floated into and out of drag racing. For instance, I was at the first-ever meeting between George Hurst and Linda Vaughn. When she walked into that Daytona meeting room, you could feel the earth move and all of us knew we had witnessed history in the making. Jungle Pam and I have remained friends over the years. And Beezer? Well, Bob Beezer is just amazing and I’m glad to call him “friend”. 

I have seen:  First pass ever down a drag strip by E.J. Potter on his “Bloody Mary” SBC-powered motorcycle; first wheels-up ever by the Hurst “Hemi Under Glass”; first-ever run by Bill “Maverick’ Golden in the Little Red Wagon. I announced the first-ever over-200 pass by a ProMod and the first “under-seven” 6.99 pass by such a car.  And, in 1988, voiced the first-ever Top Fuel 4.99 by Eddie Hill at the Texas Motorplex.  It’s been a full life and a great ride!

Have you spent any time in the “industry” that was partially birthed by drag racing? Pardon my crusty memory, but you were involved with SEMA, weren't you?

Yes, I entered the “industry” in 1973 at Eelco, then a division of the Lee Eliminators. In 1975, three others and I executed what today is called a “leveraged buyout” of Cyclone Headers from Lee. We grew Cyclone to number one status among header and exhaust system makers of that era and sold the enterprise into the remerging Mr. Gasket companies in 1981. 

During that period, I was elected by my manufacturer peers to three terms on the SEMA Board of Directors – a period of volatile growth for the association. Also – first alone and then in partnership with Dave McClelland – I was emcee of the SEMA Banquet from 1976-81. My company is a proud SEMA member. I'm an industry person.

NHRA’s been in the news lately with ugly corporate financial blunders. Do you think this is symptomatic of an obese bureaucracy? Many disgruntled sportsman racers seem to believe this is only the tip of the iceberg that will bring the giant to its knees. Would that be a good or bad thing?  Or can you even comment on this without making trouble for yourself?

I knew and respected Wally Parks and all his original crew. Lacking his influence, drag racing would not exist today as we know it. Wally is dead, God bless him. And most of the people who made NHRA what it was are either dead or retired. The National Hot Rod Association of today is a for-profit business run by professional executives. Their fans, racers, clients and the marketplace will decide the wisdom of their decisions. As with any creative enterprise that involves cars and significant effort, I wish them much success in their endeavors.

You retired from the microphone in 2001. Do you spend all of your time alphabetizing your medications now? What are you up to today and what’s tomorrow look like?

I have attempted retirement on three separate occasions and must admit complete failure. I did some consulting work from 2001 through 2004. At the behest of old drag racing friend Don McReynolds, I worked out a sweat-equity purchase of his business Southwest Valuations, a personal property appraisal firm specializing in unique, exotic, historic and racing vehicle projects. Over a five-year period, I completed Masters Degree-level schooling and – with Don as my mentor – learned “the trade”. 

On December 1, 2009, I achieved top-level operations accreditation by earning “Accredited Senior Appraiser” status as conferred by the American Society of Appraisers, the largest and most prestigious society of professional valuers. Southwest Valuations is my sole focus other than for the odd drag racing reunion appearance or vocal engagement.  My website is: southwest-valuations.com.  Interested parties may view a sample of my work by: going to www.cacklefest.com, then clicking-on “How Safe?” in their headline, then choosing to click-on the URL’s at the page bottom. I believe this is the most fulfilling “car guy” job ever!

By the way, I also serve on the Board of Directors for “Project 1320” – the drag racing history anthology series now underway.  We need to preserve our legacy and this is the best way to insure that happens. We currently have more than 100 pioneer interviews “in the can” with more coming.  The work product will be a 25-part TV series similar to Ken Burns’ ground-breaking “Jazz” series on PBS.

And by the way again, alphabetizing my medications is a task very much enjoyed by my wife Sandra, who is expert at such things as keeping “loose cannons” organized.

Bonus Question:  What’s the future of hot rodding / racing / transportation?

As long as there are two of something and one trophy, there will be racing. Hot rodding will never die, it just keeps on morphing as technology, fueled by the creative juices of dedicated fabricators and home builders, keeps flowing. I see no end to its potential. Transportation will increasingly become controlled by big government. But you either build good-performing, great looking, well made cars, or people just either seek alternatives or stop buying all together. That lesson has been painfully learned and will not soon be forgotten.

Double bonus points question: If you were a car, what kind would you be?

I think an Art Chrisman-built deuce highboy roadster would be my four-wheel manifestation. I currently drive a 2006 Dodge Charger R/T Hemi and absolutely love it.

Now that you're "retired", just what kind of laurels are you resting on?

Not many exist for motor sports participants who do not race. I'm an International Drag Racing Hall of Fame inductee (2008) and am honored by induction to the Michigan Motorsports Hall of Fame as well. Darwin Doll, through the National Nostalgia Drag Racing Association, has made me a member of their Legion of Honor and – when active – Frank Spittle welcomed me as a member of the Super/Stock and Drag Racing Illustrated Hall of Fame.

What’s next?

Well, I'm 74 and in great health. I'm blessed with a beautiful, adoring wife, plus an extended family of 7 children, 13 grandchildren, and 3 great grandsons. That group of amazing individuals, appended by Southwest Valuations, keeps me pretty well occupied. Whatever comes, comes. And I’m ready for whatever that is.

I don't doubt that! You don't even have an OFF switch, do you? Hey, thanks for sharing all of this stuff with us, Jon. It's really been a kick and quite an honor. We'll be cheering you on at Southwest and whatever else you get yourself into. Just be careful going down these stairs, man...

                                                                 (Iconic image by Don Hale)

[Voice on walkie talkie: Scotty, are you about done? I gotta lock this place up and get home.]

No sweat, Jim. We were just leaving...