With the passing of the last surviving member of NHRA’s first Division Director class over the holidays, we thought it interesting to flashback to an interview we published in Drag Racing Action in 2009. Besides his tenure as the Division Director, Doll has been heavily involved in the promotion of our sport his whole life. His comments still ring true today as will his passion for the sport.
In the early to mid-‘60s, NHRA formed the Division Director program to better serve their growing ranks. One of the group's first Division Directors was Darwin Doll.
Prior to Doll’s official position, he had run events at several tracks in the northeast part of the country, in addition to assisting NHRA at what was then “THE” Nationals, the Indy race. Doll’s systematic approach to recording elapsed times at Indy impressed the powers-that-be leading to his appointment as the first Northeast Division Director. It’s a position he held until 1978 with his wife, Pat, assisting him. In ‘78 he was appointed to the post of NHRA Eastern Regional Director which involved overseeing Divisions 1, 2 and 3. In 1981, Doll moved onto a position with Roger Penske, running Michigan International Raceway in addition to running the Pocono 500 Indy Car race for five seasons.
Today, he’s very heavily involved in the production of his York US30 Dragway Reunion events. York was the site of many large events in the ‘60s and ‘70s, most notably the Super Stock Nationals, Funny Car Nationals and the first NHRA Bracket Finals in 1976. York was even the site of the original NHRA Summernationals in 1970. It was a stop for every “name” racer of the day, with many still harboring good feelings for the old track.
It’s this which keeps Doll busy today. However, we were able to corner him long enough to get his views on the “old” versus the “new” NHRA, amongst a score of other topics.
DRAG RACING ACTION: How did your relationship with Roger Penske come about?
DARWIN DOLL: Roger had known of me from my time at tracks in Pennsylvania and in 1968, he approached me about taking a position with his company in the formation of a race track in Atlantic City. At that time, I had only been with NHRA full time for four years and I really liked what I was doing, so I stayed where I was, but Roger mentioned that if I was ever interested in leaving NHRA, to give him a call. Over the ensuing years, we kept in contact and when I decided to leave NHRA in 1981, I called him first.
DRA: What ever happened to the planned track in Atlantic City?
DD: I don’t remember the exact reasons now, but it never came to pass. However, there is an interesting story
behind it which not too many people are aware of. The York US30 Dragway had one of the first super towers, four stories tall with suites and all glass enclosed. It was quite a spectacle in the ‘70s. When Roger Penske was designing the Atlantic City track, he had that tower built as a modular unit, one that could be easily erected anywhere. When the Atlantic City project fell through, Monk Reynolds, who was running York, found out about it and bought the tower. And that’s how it ended up at York. Anything Roger does is first class all the way and that tower was no exception. It became one of the most famous towers in drag racing history.
DRA: In leaving drag racing in ’81, you went on to become in charge of the round track at Michigan. Was there anything you could correlate between working with drag racers and then circle track people?
DD: It was really all just management skills. It was an organizational thing and no matter what, I’ve always felt you need to have good people working together, and at MIS, we had that. There was something like 100 employees there and they were all great. It was very interesting and with my abilities in working with the drag racing industry, I fit right in.
DRA: Why did you leave NHRA?
DD: At the time, there was a push by the new people coming in and it wasn’t the same NHRA I had signed on with. The politics within was getting so heavy that I didn’t want to be around it any longer. As Division Directors at that time, we carried all the power and wheeled the decision-making process. It was the seven of us, Wally and Jack Hart, who was the executive director of NHRA. We set the rules, formulated policy and if something came up within the organization, we got together and addressed it. Wally was very much involved but he was beginning to let other people influence decisions we made. When I started to see things like that, I knew that the organization was going to change. There were others that saw this too, but some of them were more patient about it than I was. I just didn’t want a part of it any more. The new regime felt that the Division Directors had too much power and they were just fine if it meant some of us leaving.
DRA: How long then were you at MIS?
DD: I stayed there for five and a half years and then moved to California and the track at Sonoma, where I held the same kind of position. I was there for two years before I was approached to help formulate a plan for a track in New Mexico. It involved working with investors and others to bring auto racing to that state. The deal for me was that if it went through, I’d stand to profit ten-percent in an $80-million dollar operation, so why wouldn’t I try to see it through. Unfortunately, it never flew and we decided to come back home to Pennsylvania, when I received a call from Todd Mack, who was the owner of Maryland International Raceway at the time. He mentioned that IHRA was looking for a president.
DRA: What year was this?
DD: This was 1991 and I figured I had a fair amount of success everywhere else I’d been, why not there too. So I moved to Bristol, Tennessee and lived in an apartment while Pat was living in Pennsylvania. I was there for a couple of months and asked Pat to come down and help me in the office. When the Division Director positions started at NHRA, it was more or less expected their spouses would be a big help and they were. Pat was very instrumental in our success there, but since leaving NHRA, her role as my assistant had somewhat diminished. Yet I knew she could be a big help to me at IHRA. However, as I said earlier about having the right people all pulling in the same direction, we didn’t have that down there. Every time I’d try to correct that, there were people going behind me to the owners, who at the time were a group of manufacturers, racers, and other businessmen. I really felt we could do something with the organization but with the divisions amongst the group, there was no way we were going to get it done. So I decided it was getting to be too much and I left.
DRA: Where did you go after that?
DD: I came back home to York, Pennsylvania, and having been involved with the York track back in the early ‘60s, I got involved in the York US30 Reunion show in ‘99. Frank Spittle had a small reunion show in one little hall at the Fairgrounds and he asked if I’d give him a hand, but he waited until the last minute to do things and that affected the outcome of the show. Once the show came off, it was not representative of York US30 and I said that York deserved better than this.
DRA: How has that show been going?
DD: It’s been going good and this past year we had 175 vintage race cars in the Toyota arena in the York Fairgrounds. But we’ve worked hard with it. Last year, if we hadn’t gotten the sponsorship of Toyota trucks, there wouldn’t have been a show in 2007. It takes a lot of sponsorship support to keep that show going and we’re fortunate to put enough sponsor money together to continue. I don’t charge the people whose cars are on display one dime. I have a couple of other promoters who can’t understand how I do that but I believe you don’t charge the people who put the show on.
DRA: You mentioned earlier about how it was becoming too political within NHRA and to some, it seems to be even more so today. How do you fix it?
DD: Today, you’ve got all the bean counters who are interested in the money coming in the door. But you’ve got to look at it from a common sense standpoint and not everything is dollars and cents. Certainly you don’t want to be losing money and you don’t want the organization to struggle financially and I don’t think we did back then. But they wanted a more professional organization and that’s where the sportsman racer got stuck. I was a big proponent of sportsman racing and felt that they were our lifeblood. They deserved as much respect as any of the professional racers. But they liked the glitz and glimmer and I think Wally did too. I can remember the days of the organization’s North Hollywood office and that was fine. Why do we have to live in the penthouse?
DRA: What was Wally’s feeling about the pros versus sportsman?
DD: Most of the Division Directors at the time were sportsman oriented and Wally had a somewhat of an allegiance to us. But it was almost an East/West thing. The east was sportsman heavy and as you went west, it somewhat changed.
DRA: Do you follow much of what happens with NHRA today?
DD: I look at it once in a while, but I don’t care much about it. I do have a profound respect for the original Division Directors and any of the old line of NHRA, but there is no semblance with the current day organization. I put 17 hard years into that organization and I feel bad about where it’s gone, but I think that diplomacy would go a long way towards helping it. I’ve developed a lot of stuff for that group that I’ve never come out and pounded my chest about, but I could make a list of firsts that our division had that no other division had. Given the right person and the opportunities, I feel things could be fixed.
DRA: What keeps you going day after day?
DD: Thank God for Pat, but it’s a love affair. I’m very passionate about preserving our performance heritage and my involvement with the Reunion show and with Beaver Bob of Beaver Springs Dragway in presenting the York Nostalgia Nationals. Some days, yeah, you get to that point where you wonder why you keep beating your head against the wall, but when you go to an event like our Reunion and you hear all the great comments; it’s really what keeps us going. Sure, we run into a lot of glitches, headaches that make you wonder, but after about a week of rest, I’d say lets get going again. As long as my health holds up and Pat can continue to help me, and she’s my life blood right now, I’ll continue. Without her, I couldn’t do it all.
DRA: Darwin, thanks for taking the time to talk with us and thanks for your years of service to our sport. We only wish you the best of luck.
DD: Thank you.