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That Kid From Chicago - Gary Dyer

Drag fans called him Mr. Norm, but his real name was Gary Dyer

By Paul Stenquist, Photography by Paul Stenquist

Bitter winds chased dead leaves down Chicago streets as Gary Dyer and the Mr. Norm Grand Spaulding Coronet headed southwest on Route 66 toward sunny California and a match-race at Lions. It was late autumn of 1965 and the weather was seasonably cold and dreary, but Dyer expected to be greeted with even more of a chill when he arrived at Lions, given the anger with which West Coast racers had responded to his recent match-race wins that had been trumpeted weekly in bombastic full-page Drag News ads purchased by Norm Kraus.

"The Lions match race with Don Gay in November 1965 was our first West Coast appearance," Dyer recalls. "We had raced only in the Midwest and east until then, but Norm always promoted the car in Drag News."

Earlier that year, Dyer, Norm and the Grand Spaulding Dodge had bested the factory-backed Ramchargers Dodge at Ubly, Michigan, setting an unofficial elapsed-time record for stock-bodied cars at 8.70. Norm told the world.

"Norm said we could whip on any stock-bodied car in the country," Dyer says. "The guys in L.A. didn't like that, and we started getting into a pissing match. It grew over the course of the summer. Come autumn we decided we had to go out there and race them."

West Coast racers knew that the tracks where Dyer, Beswick, the Ramchargers, and other Midwest cars butted heads relied on timing equipment thought to be less accurate than West Coast Chrondeks. So when Norm said he'd show the California boys how it's done, the left-coasters confidently chortled, "If you're coming out here, you better bring your clocks." Most accounts have it that Tom McEwen was chief chortler.

Dyer and Norm didn't bring their clocks, but they brought their match-race showmanship and made a big production of putting down rosin on the Lions tarmac, then firing the car and blasting across the line several times with the blown, fuel-burning Hemi's weed burners bellowing at the packed grandstands. Texas teenager, Don Gay, at the wheel of his supercharged GTO, did likewise in the other lane. Perhaps unnerved by the pressure of it all, Gay left well before the tree went green. Despite the head start, Dyer drove around the Poncho. Those accurate West Coast clocks said 8.63/163 for the big Dodge from Chicago—faster than any stock-bodied drag car had ever gone to date. Gay went 9.50 at 158 in the other lane, so it was side-by-side, high-speed, parachutes-blossoming action at the finish line. More than 9,000 fans, who had skipped a Top Fuel show at another track to see the exhibition racers at Lions, screamed their approval.

In an April '76 Super Stock & Drag Illustrated article, veteran Funny Car shoe Frank Oglesby said that night at Lions was a turning point in drag-racing history: "On that day when everybody was struggln' to get outta the 10s, ol' Gary drove that big, heavy Dodge to an 8.63 at 163 mph, provin' beyond a reasonable doubt that a Funny Car burns fuel and has a blower."

Not all West Coast exhibition racers were stuck in the 10s. According to an article by Chris Martin in the Mar. 20, 1987, issue of National Dragster, McEwen was second best that night at 8.82, 171, but it was the performance of the unknown racer from Chicago that set the drag-racing world abuzz.

And although the name of the car he drove would quickly become known everywhere, the guy at the wheel, the guy who turned the wrenches, would remain largely unknown. Mr. Norm was the public face of the car, regardless that from 1964 to 1972 Gary Dyer built, tuned, and—for the most part—drove the Mr. Norm Funny Cars. Norm Kraus bankrolled some of them, promoted them aggressively and appeared on the starting line in the early years, dressed to the nines and spreading rosin with a broom, but Gary Dyer was the drag racer. Although he had the skills necessary to go it alone, he had to trade on the Mr. Norm and Grand Spaulding brands, and he is quick to point out that he benefited greatly from Norm's promotional skills.

"If I had walked away from Norm and come out there with Dyer's Dodge, people would have said ‘what the hell is that,'" Gary says with a grin.

Even today, after history has had time to sort things out, Dyer's role is seldom mentioned and Kraus continues to trade on the Funny Car's success. Nothing wrong with Norm making the best of his situation, but there's a need to set the record straight. For this writer, the final straw was a comment on a Facebook drag-racing page heralding Norm's huge impact on the early years of Funny Car racing with absolutely no mention of Gary Dyer. Shortly thereafter, I called Gary and asked him to tell me the real story.

That saga began many years before at the world's only school named after cornstarch: Argo High in Summit, Illinois. Argo was a major employer in the working-class town, so the city fathers named their school after the kitchen staple. And while many Argo students aspired to a job at the cornstarch plant, John Farkonas, Pat Minick, and Gary Dyer were much more into automobiles than culinary thickening agents.

"The three of us hung around Central Billiards, a pool hall and bar," Gary says. "We'd go there looking for the latest [issue of] Hot Rod. We'd shoot pool, bum around and get into some street racing. Farkonas had a '50 Oldsmobile. Minick had a '53 Dodge Red Ram. I had a '56 Chevy with the Power Pack 265. We'd hit the drive-ins: Tops on Ogden Avenue in Berwyn, the Big Boy in Lagrange, Skip's Fiesta up on North Avenue.

"We were good buddies. One day we drove up to Half Day, Illinois, to watch races at an old military landing field that served as the Chicago area's first dragstrip. Pretty soon we were competing regularly. We would race in the summer. Then all winter long we would drink coffee and bullshit."

Those BS sessions proved valuable. Farkonas studied engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology and was heavily into the science of internal-combustion engines. He loved talking about them, and Dyer hung on his every word. One Farkonas lesson that stuck had to do with superchargers and how they could vastly improve the breathing of an engine. So when another Dyer pal, Dave Doogan, built a hot small-block with a blower, Dyer talked him into putting it in his '59 Corvette. And so the journey began.

By Paul Stenquist
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