REMEMBER WHEN - 50 YEARS LATER

This all started back in 1969 but while thumbing through some shots, this one photo from my days at Byron Dragway always seemed to show up. I never got any info on the car or the team but I always liked the car.

About two months ago, I emailed the photo to a well-known Rockford Dragway racer; and lo and behold, 50 years later I finally got the info I was looking for and what a story it was. A story about four friends who came together to field a Top Fuel car. A story which doesn’t exist today, at least not in the top category of our sport.

The car in question was owned by a team of four guys who had a love for all things related to cars and drag racing. All four lived on the southwest side of Chicago, not too far from Chris Karamesines’ Engine Specialty Shop (Yes, the Greek!). The owners were Mike Collins; who built the engines and was a pipe fitter by trade, Bernie O’Donnell was the tuner and a Chicago fireman, Gene Rathgeb was the driver who happened to be an Industrial Engineer, and Rich Guminski was the car painter and also a mechanical engineer. I was saddened recently to learn of Collins’ passing, but these guys deserve some ink.  

Built by Dennis Roland and John Butera out of Kenosha, Wisconsin in the Summer of ’64, the car was somewhat unique in that each team member had a hand in its finished construction. The formed body panels were done by Lee Austin at his shop in Chicago, with lettering by DJ, and the team built the 392 Chrysler they used. Uniquely, the car was built with a wheelbase of only 184-inches, because that’s all that would fit in their garage. As an aside, I’ve been told there was a certain dragster driver from the Chicagoland area who had a car built but it was too long for his garage so he had to cut an area for the front wheels to stick through. Drag racers will go to extremes at times, being quite inventive when they have to.

Nonetheless, Rich Guminski told me the Greek would stop by their shop to give them his tip of the week. The problem was that most of his “tips” couldn’t be implemented due to the budget the team had to work with. However, often the Greek would stop by with other touring racers which made the team’s garage a sort of magnet. Not sure if that garage is still standing but can you imagine the stories it could tell!

The team ran the UDRA Top Fuel Circuit, a few of the Popular Hot Rodding meets, the World Series of Drag Racing, along with some Division 3 races and naturally Indy. With their best of a 6.84 at 232 mph, the car crashed at Indy in ’69. Without serious injuries, they made the decision to keep racing and ordered a new car, racing it through the 1972 season.

Like the car before, it was again a front motored car. After Don Garlits perfected the rear-engine dragster, the team didn’t want to have another car built so it was decided that they would partner with Red Sullivan and his rear motored 426 Hemi powered Wayne Farr car under the Keystone banner.

I had always wondered about the name on the car, and I was told it goes back to their early days when they were racing a flathead model A/Fuel Altered at their then local track Oswego. There appeared to be some mayhem running around trying to get the car staged by the crew which left the impression to the announcer that they looked like the Keystone Cops of movie fame. As such, the name “Keystone” sort of stuck with them,  

In teaming up with Sullivan, they managed a best of 6.67@224mph during the ‘73 season. But as that year wound down, due to family and business obligations, loss of sponsorships, along with the early ‘70s energy crunch, the team retired from drag racing. Although they may have quit racing, the four team members along with some of those other Chicagoland racers would meet for breakfast once a month, a tradition that still goes on to this day.  

It was pretty refreshing that after 50 years, I finally found out about this car and the photo that has been popping up so many times in my searches through old film. And I’m glad I got to Remember When Top Fuel racing was a lot different than today.