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Playing With Fire - Burnouts

Gangsters, Guns, and Gasoline: A Guide to Drag Racing Photography in the 1970s

By Rick Voegelin, Photography by Car Craft Archives

"So the car is sitting there with the rear tires in a puddle of gasoline, and somebody throws a match and runs out of the picture. Then the driver nails it, the tires vaporize the gas, and boom! That's where you get the fireball." (A word from our lawyers: Do not attempt this! Fire burnouts can cause serious injury and death. So don't do it! Now back to our story.)

While a Pro Stocker performing a fire burnout was a novelty in 1972, flames and smoke had become staples of the Funny Car and Top Fuel shows. Green photographed the Brand X Camaro in an inferno for the cover of the Feb. 1971 issue. Suspended in a cherry picker above the car and shooting with a manual Hasselblad camera, Green had one chance to get the shot.

"We figured that an overhead view was best way to get a shot that would fill the cover," Green said. "The basket wasn't very high, just enough to allow the car to go under me, and the upturned exhaust headers tossed the basket around a little. It was a bit of a thrill from that angle, very different than standing beside a Funny Car." Not to be outdone by its sister publication, Hot Rod ran a cover photo of Gene Snow's Dodge doing a fire burnout in the Apr. 1971 issue—and one year later, came roaring back with the Brand X Mustang performing a prodigious fire burnout on the cover of the Apr. 1973 issue.

"I want to see the fire burnouts stopped right now, before someone gets seriously hurt," declared Car Craft Publisher Sal Fish in a stern editorial in the Feb. 1971 issue. "Let's limit drag racing to drag racing and forget the circus freak shows."

Unfortunately, Fish chose the wrong time to take the high ground. The same issue that carried his hard-hitting column had the Brand X Camaro fire burnout on the cover, a Jungle Jim Camaro fire burnout in the centerspread, and a second view of the Brand X burnout in a Funny Car feature. The fact was that fire burnouts were hot on the newsstand.

"How can you top a fire burnout?" asked Terry Cook, who moved from the editor's chair at Car Craft to Hot Rod in 1972. "I had two Gene Snow cars doing fire burnouts, side by side. And that sold 420,000 copies on the newsstand." Racers were willing participants in this madness. Drag Racing USA ran a section under the banner "Flame Burnouts! Latest Sensation in Drag Racing!" that depicted a dozen Top Fuel dragsters, Funny Cars, and Fuel Altereds with tires ablaze. While the NHRA had prudently banned fire burnouts at national events in the interest of safety, gasoline-fueled burnouts were frequently staged at match races and non-NHRA events.

"Fire burnouts were big, showy, and incredibly dangerous," said Jon Asher, who joined the CC staff as competition editor in 1973 after a distinguished freelance career in the Midwest. "Many of them really were dangerous fiascoes. That's the only way to describe it. If you knew someone was going to do a fire burnout, you had to warn everybody in the area to get back out of the way in case something went wrong. Fortunately, I never saw one go really wrong.

"Tommy Ivo taught me to smear the back of the car with a thick layer of Vaseline," Asher explained. "We'd send somebody to a drug store to buy a case of Vaseline, and then coat the back half of the car. The paint colors showed through the grease clearly enough for photos. When the gasoline ignited, the Vaseline melted instantly and absorbed the heat. That trick usually worked to perfection.

"When we shot the Brand X Mustang fire burnout at Orange County, the first one just wasn't good enough," Asher recalled. "The fire only blew up on one side of the car. So Terry Cook walked out with a wastebasket filled with gasoline and threw it under the car. Luckily the motor was already lit, because the gasoline torched instantly, and the driver, Cecil Lankford, nailed the throttle. It was a killer burnout, but the heat was so intense that it blistered the paint on the back of the car and singed both parachute packs." Cook later recalled the wastebasket incident: "I didn't want the guy to get hurt, and he didn't, but we were pushing the envelope."

"Several photographers were shooting the burnout, but the fireball was so bright that it simply overwhelmed their camera settings," Asher continued. "I was so excited that I opened my camera before rewinding the film. I slammed it shut, and I thought I'd ruined the film. When the film came back from processing, the light leaks were just on the edge of the frames, so everything was salvageable.

"I got about eight shots in the sequence, as fast as my Nikon's motor drive would fire," Asher noted. "In the first frame, the fire was already big, and then by the third one it was huge. Cecil was thrilled—he didn't care about torching the car because his partner owned it!

"I also shot several fire burnouts with Don Garlits, who really knew how to engineer them," Asher added. "Connie Swingle was driving Garlits' dragster at Bristol. Garlits walked out to the starting line with a big can of gasoline, and he said to the photographers, 'How do you like your Swingle? Rare, medium, or well done?' Naturally, we all chose well done!"

Gallows humor and gasoline were a volatile mixture, especially when spiced with a dash of bravado and a dollop of testosterone. By 1973, the fire burnout fad had burned itself out. In truth, the dangers of staged fire burnouts paled in comparison to the perils of high-speed engine explosions and fiberglass-fueled infernos that Funny Car drivers routinely faced, protected only by the rudimentary safety equipment of the period. Saner heads and insurance underwriters ultimately prevailed, and fire burnouts passed into drag racing legend—along with gangsters and Tommy guns on the pages of Car Craft.

By Rick Voegelin
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