Sometimes Change is Good
BAM! Stunned by the loud gunshot, the girl fell backward and onto the floor as the chair rolled out from under her. BAM! The second shot rang out. “What the hell are you doing?” she yelled as she cowered from her place on the office trailer floor. Her ears were ringing and for a moment she thought she had gone deaf. The gunman pulled the .357 caliber handgun back from the open window and the summer heat and set it down on his desk.
“Just chasin’ the stray dogs,” he laughed, reaching over to help her up from the floor. Flustered from the commotion and embarrassed that she fell, she tried to hold in her laugh and just looked at him as she brushed herself off and fixed her skirt.
“I was told working here would be a lot of fun, but next time give me a heads-up, okay?” she demanded with a smile. He nodded. “Is the boss coming in today?” she asked as he walked out the door.
“You just never know. He might show up every day for two weeks or we might not see him for a month,” he replied.
That was the young girl’s first day on the job at VP. I laughed really hard the first time I heard that story and to this day remember it fondly. The owner had hired her to answer the phones and keep the books but had never offered in the interview any hint of how present or absent he might be. Little did anyone know from that small site located thirty miles south of the Alamo in San Antonio, a young man named Steve Burns would lead a classic American success story and take so many of us on the ride of a lifetime. His VP Racing Fuels would evolve and grow to wage epic David versus Goliath battles and wars that continue today. Miles away, while the history of VP’s earliest days in the racing fuel business were being written in Texas, I was living a much different life in the Northeast.
On a particularly cold winter night in the suburbs of Philadelphia I found myself in a precarious position, carrying precious cargo. The evening had started out awkwardly enough. As I entered the warmth of that family’s living room my eyeglasses immediately fogged over and I couldn’t see a damn thing. I quickly took them off as I began to introduce myself but it left me legally blind and struggling to read the faces of the people who were greeting me. To make matters worse, the weather was turning. While we were inside the house attending to the grieving family and the deceased, a frosty mist had fallen and everything outside had begun to freeze over with ice. So there I was, backing down the front steps of a row home, wrestling with the heavy end of a stretcher. Not only were the steps very steep but also there seemed to be a small mountain of them. We were headed for the silver station wagon that we’d double-parked in the street.
Suddenly I started to slip and slide on the steps, and this caused the guy on the other end to stumble too. Off we went, very quickly and somewhat unprofessionally down the steps. I managed to jump backward onto the hood of a car parked at the curb as my end of the stretcher slammed hard into the front fender. How my helper managed to maintain his footing I will never know. Luckily, our precious cargo was unharmed. The family and many of the neighbors had been watching and seemed relieved none of us were hurt. One of the relatives slipped his way down the steps and checked his car for damage but there was surprisingly not even a scratch. The best thing about the funeral business, and especially just then, was that the person left in your care never complained. Okay, they rarely did. On the drive to the morgue, after laughing off the tension, I reminded myself, “This is only short term. I won’t have to do this forever.”
My father owned a very successful funeral home and encouraged me to be a part of it. He had always wanted me to follow in his footsteps and hoped that by working in it I would take a greater interest. When I wasn’t in school, working a regular job, or out trying to have a good time, he paid me to put on a suit and go to a hospital, nursing home, or private residence. There, I’d essentially do what was referred to in the business as a removal. If we were moving someone that had died at home, I would be the family’s first contact. I was the son of the funeral director who they knew and trusted, and since I’m a very compassionate person I believe I handled things very well - one family helping another. My being there gave the surviving family and friends the reassurance that their loved one was being taken care of with the respect and dignity they deserved. I would carefully place the remains of someone who had just died on a stretcher for transfer to the morgue. Sometimes people would want to help. Other times they were too overwhelmed with grief. It might sound like a pretty messed up job, but someone had to do it, and for doing this sort of thing the money was very good. That winter night, with the fogged up glasses and the ice follies on the front steps, was not a typical one but reminded me to always maintain a sense of humor.
I might have been very good at helping people through difficult times but it would take a toll on me and I wanted to be living life, not watching people mourn the loss of one. One morning in particular I had to drive into Philly to do what I considered was the toughest part of my job. There I was, standing in the morgue at the Philadelphia Medical Examiner’s Office, literally picking up the remains of an infant who had died suspiciously under the care of a babysitter. Three days later I would help the baby’s mother place him in a little white casket and physically support her as she said goodbye. My heart broke for her. She and everyone in her family were crushed. Funerals are tough enough but when it came to children, and in this case, an infant, all of us hurt. All of us were numb. Luckily I was always able to keep my emotions in check and do what I was there to do. Help. That was the day I knew I had to get as far away from that business as possible and in my life, timing has been everything. I needed to get back into racing.
One of my best high school buds, Glen Sides, introduced me to live motorsports in the ’70s. I had watched some racing on television but when he took me to a NASCAR race in Pocono, Pennsylvania I was hooked. I didn’t give any thought to what fuel the cars were racing on, I only recognized the familiar day-glow red stripes and STP logos on Richard Petty’s blue #43 and the Purolator #21 Ford that David Pearson was driving. Glen and I went to high school together and had after-school jobs as custodians. It was there that I met Fred Morrison and before long the three of us we were getting into all sorts of things. We’d pile into someone’s car and drive non-stop to Gainesville, Florida every March for the NHRA Gatornationals drag race. Gas ups and pee breaks were the extent of our few pit stops. Counting down the endless billboards along I-95 touting the South of the Border food and gas was the only thing that kept whoever was driving entertained once everyone else nodded off. They called it the Gators, not only because you could find them in the state, the track also had a few resident alligators that often made things interesting for the onsite campers and their barbeques. They have gators at Volusia Speedway near Daytona but that’s a dirt oval and an entirely different animal from drag racing. The National Hot Rod Association sanctions drag strips across North America. They put on over twenty events across the U.S. featuring the best of the best in the professional classes, and some of the best local, regional, and touring sportsman racers. Back in the ’70s, we were thrilled to escape the cold, wet weather and head to North Florida where the temperature was in the 80s and sunny. The fact that a drag race was going on made the trip even more worthwhile. We’d bake in the sun at the track for a few days and then haul ass north on the interstate so everyone would be back in class, or work, on Monday morning. It was our Spring Break and we loved every minute and mile of it.
After high school, just about everyone headed for college. I wasn’t completely sure of what I wanted to study, or if I wanted to study at all, so I took the year off to try to figure that out. I hate to waste time. So many of my friends who jumped right into college switched majors about five times and today aren’t even working in the fields they were degreed in. Fred started at West Chester University nearby and got a part time job working with Bobby Thompson at his auto body shop in Havertown, Pennsylvania. “BT” specialized in corvette repairs and restorations by day but by night and many weekends all focus turned to Thompson’s beautiful ’67 canary yellow B/MP Corvette drag car. It was the first race car I was ever involved with. In all honesty, I was tasked with keeping that beauty clean while trying to learn as much as I could from the real gear heads that tended to her like a baby. The shop was one of many in this little industrial park. It seemed everyone was doing tune-ups and bodywork by day and working on their own race cars by night, a scene that takes place in little racing “villages” like that one all across the country.
I grew up discovering the world through the pages of LIFE and National Geographic magazines and developed an interest in photography. Yes, the topless native women were a curiosity for any boy at that age but the photos captured moments. They captured people and events, history. Being a part of that intrigued me. When my grandmother died she left me $100, and with it I bought my first 35mm single lens reflex camera. On one of our excursions to Gainesville, I took some candid photos of drivers like professional drag racers Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Shirley Muldowney. Prudhomme was already a legend and Muldowney was the first woman to win national drag race competitions. Her amazing story was told in the film Heart Like a Wheel. I was also fortunate enough to capture a few action shots of nitromethane fueled “funny cars” doing what they seemed to do best, go really fast and sometimes – blow themselves up. I sent them off to Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine to see if they were good enough for publication. The late Steve Collison, the editor for SS&DI at the time, must have liked what he saw. He was the first guy to give me a break in motorsports photojournalism and for that I will be forever grateful.
In no time I was traveling to the NHRA Nationals with credentials that got me into the races for free, but more importantly they were all-access passes. I could go into restricted areas and snap away. For a race fan and a novice at what I was now into, I remember one time in particular that took place early on that was pretty cool to me. Prudhomme’s U.S. Army Monza funny car had just made a fast pass down the quarter mile but the driver had used one of the early exit roads to pull off the track and wait for his crew to retrieve him and tow him back to their pit. The NHRA Safety Safari trucks were on site as always, strategically parked at various points down track, able to react to an emergency as quickly as possible. From their vantage points they could see that Prudhomme didn’t seem to be in any trouble so they remained where they were and waited for the next set of cars. There I was taking photos of the funny car as it rolled pretty much right to me. Inside it I saw two gloved hands making a lifting gesture so I slung the camera straps over my shoulder, pulled the body release handle, and raised the fiberglass body up high enough to let the driver climb out from behind the sizzling hot engine. I got the cameras back to work and snapped away as he removed some very cumbersome safety gear. It was pretty cool. I guess at this point I can say The Snake popped my cherry. There would be many other times to come when I found myself in the same spot but got to hear some language much different from Prudhomme’s words of appreciation. I actually learned some four-letter ones I had never, ever heard before. A few would become my favorites and anyone who knows me well can attest to that.
There were plenty of ways for me to get to the races. Either Glen, Fred and I would drive non-stop to a race or I’d go by myself. I’ll never forget driving all night to cover the IHRA National Event at Darlington in South Carolina. I remember pulling into the parking lot of a Waffle House, a road warrior’s favorite. It was a few hours before dawn so I crawled into the back seat of my midnight blue Dodge Charger and caught a few hours before the racing would begin. Nothing like brushing your teeth in one of those bathrooms and then crushing a plate of waffles, grits, home fries, and whatever kind of “meat” that sausage patty was supposed to have been. Other times, BT would drive his race car hauler to an event and Fred and I would ride along. We’d take turns in the bunk that lay just behind the front seat. You’d climb though the area where the back window used to be and hope for a smooth ride when it was your turn to snooze. Hopefully the radio or the 8-track tape player would take it easy on anyone trying to sleep but quite often it was called on to overcome the intriguing sounds of someone snoring. This was all long before iPhones and iPads and ear buds and such. Each day at the track, I’d be off taking pictures while Fred would be helping BT with his car. We’d reconnect when the racing was done and then head home again. At some point though I realized that I needed to get serious so I enrolled at a local college and then moved to Penn State’s main campus at University Park. I’d always had an interest in and desire to help people, protecting people, especially those who are picked on by those bigger than them.
I like to sit, listen and observe. Assess things, design a game plan, anticipate reactions to my actions, and so on. No interest in writing speeding tickets though. I wanted to be involved in law enforcement and had a friend at the FBI in Quantico who suggested the path I take to becoming a Fed. The courses were fascinating and I really got into it. I also pursued a minor in accounting at their recommendation; that would help with going after white-collar crime. But with the suddenness of a guillotine my dream was dumped in a bucket. It had turned out that my uncorrected vision wasn’t good enough to get me into the FBI or Treasury and I was devastated. Contact lenses may have given me 20/20 but that didn’t matter. This was all years before they developed corrective laser surgery. I may have moped around a bit but I got to abandon the accounting minor and thank God for that. Boring! I switched majors and pursued another passion, journalism. I’ve always had an investigative curiosity, something that drives some of my family crazy to this day. I don’t miss a detail, remember more than I should, and have a keen sense about people. That particularly endeared me to my two daughters much later in life as I got to screen, I mean meet, a few of the boys they were dating.
I figured if I couldn’t put a bad guy in jail with a badge then perhaps I would use my talents to go after them in another way. I had paid attention as the Nixon nightmare unfolded and watched the Watergate hearings on TV throughout the summer of ’73. I was impressed with the investigative, never-give-up attitude of Woodward and Bernstein and thought that might be for me. However, two things happened at Penn State. First, I partied more than studied. We turned the off-campus condo into party central. We’d do things like place a large bowl on a table inside the front door and to gain entry you had to pay the toll. Pills of all sorts, bags of what is now legal in many states, and loose change would fill the damn thing pretty quickly. It would always seem that half the house would be wired and the other half would be extremely mellow but there was never a dull moment. For me, I learned quickly that one of my inner demons would be excess. It’s part of my personality. Remember the potato chip commercial, “bet you can’t eat just one?” In years to come that trait would be an asset to any employer but a troublesome one for me. I would take everything to excess. Chasing sales contests, going after the Goliaths, drinking, connecting with the ladies, whatever and wherever. Second notable thing from my Penn State experience was that I dated a nurse and that could have killed me, well almost. There was an interesting business in town and they wanted your blood! Actually, they just wanted your plasma. Twice a week my roommates and I would head down and bleed. A nurse would check your vitals, including your protein level, and give you the go ahead to participate. Back in the late ’70s they’d pay you something like $6 for the first pint and $9 when you came back later in the week to give the second. Simply, they’d take out a pint, separate the RBC (red blood cells) from the plasma, and then put them back into the donor. It was beer money for the weekend and you could study while lying there if you were so inclined. Most of us just flirted with the nurses.
We’d have loaded up on free peanuts at a bar the night before going. The protein levels needed to be high to participate. So what’s the issue with dating a nurse? Well this one lovely thought she was doing me a favor and allowed me to participate while I was running a pretty good fever. Between that and the partying I got sicker than sick. Before long, taking my behavior and my grades into account, I left Penn State and focused on my motorsports photography, plying whatever I had learned studying journalism by writing feature stories, and finding a full time job. I never really liked the classroom anyway. Since I was already selling my work I figured, “who needed school?”
Eventually I was able to put my journalism and writing skills really to work and produced race coverage, feature stories, and a monthly column titled “Afterthought.” To date, some of my most memorable excursions were to Sanair International, the dragstrip, about a fifty-five minute drive to the east from Montreal.
I had spent many summers in Quebec visiting my aunt, a cloistered nun, and was very familiar with the French-Canadian environment. Race fans north of the border are some of the most enthusiastic on the planet and flock to the tracks to be part of it all. In addition, many of the region’s most beautiful women showed up in thongs. There must be something in the poutine up there! Aside from the skin show and the high octane Molson Brador, what sticks in my memory banks the most was Don Garlits. There he was sitting with us in the grandstands, enjoying a plum. He was amazed that the track vendors sold fresh fruit while back in the U.S. we were usually offered artery-cloggers like churros and French fries. It wasn’t all fun and games though. One thing that occurred that weekend was unsettling and I still remember it like it happened yesterday.
I had already seen the ultimate price so many young men had paid in Vietnam. My cousin Stephen, serving as a medevac helicopter pilot, was killed in action during that damn war. His viewing, held at our funeral home, and burial wasn’t the first or sadly the last we would be involved in as a result of the nightmare that was Vietnam but it most certainly was the toughest. My Aunt Jane, Stephen’s mom, stayed with us in the residence above the funeral home. Just five months before that, Stephen and Jane and the rest of the family had been there to bury her husband Charlie, Stephen’s dad. I was a junior in high school back then in 1972 and had learned to hold in the emotions and be as helpful and compassionate as possible for the people the business brought to our door. But that was a numbing week that finally ended as I watched my dad, Stephen’s godfather, say goodbye graveside at West Point. Then, and in years to come, participating in the funerals of America’s military veterans killed in action or at rest after a long life, was always a moving experience. Whether they were buried at a local cemetery, West Point, or Arlington National Cemetery, it was a privilege to have participated in honoring them.
A few years later, back at Sanair, I watched as Vietnam came back to haunt one of our friends who had fought in the war. As we stood near the finish line at the quarter mile mark, just as one of the nitro funny cars made it past us, the engine exploded in a very loud, fiery display. There were two distinctive sounds at big time drag races that spectators had to experience. One was the big vibration and roar of a race engine that was fueled with nitro as it launched from a standing start. If you have never been to a race and felt this firsthand you have to consider it a bucket list item. The other sound that nobody really wanted to hear was the concussive blast let loose when one of those 2,000 horsepower race engines suffered a catastrophic failure at 275 miles per hour. Engine parts of all shapes and sizes would fly from the race car and land pretty much wherever they wanted. In the stands, inside the driver’s seat of an open pickup truck window, wherever. When the engines erupt they go off like a bomb and that’s exactly what our Vietnam vet reacted to. We were all saying “wow” and looking around to see if anyone got hit and there was our friend, lying on the ground. Just as quickly as he’d dropped he jumped up, back on his feet. He was clearly shaken by what had happened and embarrassed by the look he got from the Canadian fans standing nearby. That was a sobering moment for those of us who had never experienced what he and so many others had. As fast as the incident occurred he put it behind him and went back to admiring the many thongs and race cars. It was the first time I had witnessed what’s now called PTSD. It was unbelievable.
Now, in present time, those engines rarely let go but when they do there are a number of safety devices required by the NHRA and other sanctioning bodies to keep damage, oil leaks, and the shrapnel, to a minimum. I pray that all of our servicemen and women, regardless of where or when they served, always get the support and attention they need to help cope with what they’ve been through. Their service and sacrifices, and those of their families, should never be forgotten or taken for granted. That of course goes for our friends in law enforcement and fire and rescue as well.
Meanwhile in Texas
While I was finding my way, Steve Burns was pursuing his passion down south. He grew up in San Antonio and his father had served in the U.S. Army, a veteran who came ashore at Utah Beach in Normandy during World War II. It was a patriotic household and that continues to pulse through “ASB” as we call him still today. Steve had some involvement with drag racing in Texas but wasn’t satisfied with the race gas products that were on the market there. If you knew Steve you’d know his natural curiosity won out and when his parents took him to Washington D.C. for an annual vacation his father mentioned that anything and everything you might want to learn about is within the building they were driving by. It was the Library of Congress and Steve immersed himself in what he found there. This of course was long before the Internet and Google searches and I suggest that he didn’t keep going back just for the research. I knew damn well there had to be at least one particularly helpful attractive young librarian there and his boyish grin confirmed it the last time we spoke about those early days in D.C. Steve read everything he could get his hands on and his father may have helped point him in a specific direction. During World War II, there was a huge need for fuel development in Europe, particularly in Germany. The scientists in that country needed to get the highest octane out of the fuels they put in their military aircraft. They also needed to generate fuel products from any and every source available to them. When you’re fighting a war with motorcycles, autos, trucks, tanks, aircraft, submarines, destroyers and everything motorized in between you need reliable fuels that you can source and that will perform.
Want more? Order Fuelin’ Around, in paperback or eBook now!