January 27, 2023


Still car-crazy after all these years

Hoover and Snow AHRA Grandnationals final

Tom Gilmore attempted to hand start the funny car final when the power went out.

Hoover and Snow at Detroit: The final that wasn’t

hI have seen my share of National Event finals over the years. Most were memorable, some were yawners, a few were plain disappointing.

But the most bizarre National Event final I ever saw came at the 1976 AHRA Grand Nationals at Detroit Dragway. While the AHRA wasn’t as prestigious as rival NHRA, they still attracted plenty of big-name cars and they ran a season-long points race, just like the other sanctioning bodies. The Detroit race wasn’t the season-finale but any chance to earn points could be important at the end of the year.

In 1976, the points race was particularly close in funny car eliminator.

A very tight points chase

Minnesota’s Tom Hoover had led the funny car standings for much of the season. At the AHRA “Okie” Nationals, however, Texan Gene Snow managed to wrest the lead away. Going into the Detroit event, Hoover was determined to get the points lead back, while Snow was bent on strengthening his lead. There was a fleet of fuel funny cars at the Grand Nationals, but Snow and Hoover had the most incentive to win. So to no one’s surprise, the final round came down to Hoover’s Showtime Vega in the spectator lane and Snow’s Snowman Monza on the tower side.

On their burnouts, it was evident both machines were set on kill. If you happened to be on the starting line, you could feel drops of unburnt nitro falling like rain. There was no doubt this was going to be a barn-burner of a final.

Except it wasn’t.

My first inkling something was wrong came when the announcer’s voice cut out in mid-sentence. I glanced at the silent tower to see all the windows appeared to be dark. I turned my attention to the Christmas Tree, to see it looked dead. The staging beams were out, as well. I glanced across to the snack bar, where a neon sign usually invited fans to enjoy food and drink. No neon lights.

I remember thinking, “How could a power failure happen at this exact moment, just before the most important run of the weekend?”

A power failure at the worst possible time

Tom Hoover and Gene Snow discuss the unsatisfactory final at the AHRA Grandnationals
Tom Hoover and Gene Snow discuss the unsatisfactory final at the AHRA Grandnationals

Track manager Tom Gilmore might have been wondering the exact same thing, but he didn’t hesitate. I was impressed to see how quickly he reacted. He ran between the two cars and knelt on the starting line. Signaling with his hands, he indicated he was going to stage the cars by hand.

He carefully waved Hoover forward, then held up his hand to show the Vega was precisely where it needed to be. Then he turned toward Snow and motioned the red Monza forward, inch by inch.

I’m not sure if Hoover misinterpreted one of Gilmore’s hand motions or if Hoover’s engine temp reached the red zone. All of a sudden the Showtime Vega exploded off the line and launched on an all-out pass. Hot, straight and true, the Vega lived up to its name and put on a beautiful show.

Hoover must have expected to see Snow’s fender out his left window at any moment, as he legged it all the way through the lights. Even from the starting line, you could see the death smoke hanging above the Vega as Hoover burned up everything he had to ensure a win. Of course, there was no recorded time, but it was a beautiful run to watch.

Snow watched all of this through the windshield of the not-yet staged Snowman car. Realizing Hoover’s head start made it impossible to catch the Vega, Snow shut the Monza down on the starting line.

Hoover vs Snow. So, who won?

At first, nobody knew where this would lead. Hoover was parked at the top end, with an engine full of burnt pistons and who knows what other damage. Snow was somewhat better off, but he still had run his engine hot and would require refreshing before he could make another run.

It would take at least an hour to ready the cars for another attempt and that assumed Hoover had another bullet to put in the Vega. With all the other eliminators complete, there was nothing to entertain the crowd during that period. Not to mention everyone was hot, tired and hungry after three days of racing.

It was widely reported that Snow and Hoover flipped a coin to decide the winner. That is not what happened. The sanctioning body added up all the elapsed times Snow had racked up for the weekend and then tallied up all the time slips Hoover had collected. Snow had a marginally lower ET for the weekend, so the Texan was declared the winner.

Of course, AHRA realized this was an unfair method to distribute the championship points, so they took all the points for the winner and runner-up positions, added them together and then awarded half to Snow and the other half to Hoover. Thus after three days of hard runs, the points contest was exactly the same, with Snow still leading Hoover by the same amount. The only consolation was the two drivers had put a comfortable margin between themselves and whoever was in the third place.

But how did that power failure happen at that critical moment? Detroit Dragway’s main power transformer was located in the pit area. The transformer had a large power shutoff switch. The shutoff might have been installed because the track used to sell Sunoco Racing Fuel and they needed a safety shutoff to comply with local laws.

Warnings signs are there for a reason!

Whatever, the transformer was about 40 inches tall and 18″ X 18″. It was painted dark green and was clearly labeled DANGER, HIGH VOLTAGE, KEEP AWAY!

Despite the warnings, a young teenager in the crowd decided he could get an excellent view of the final run if he stood on top of the transformer. As the two cars were making their burnouts, he attempted to scramble to the summit of the power unit. The slab sheet metal of the box didn’t provide any purchase for his feet, so he had trouble achieving his goal.

Then his feet encountered a slight projection that he could use to boost himself up. Unfortunately, that projection turned out to be the master power lever and as he pushed himself up, his foot pushed the arm down. This neatly shut off the power for the entire facility.

After that incident, the track built a fence around the transformer, so only someone with a key could reach the shut-off switch.

Some would say the unit should always have been behind a fence. The only problem with that idea is that after the fence was built, only someone with a key could shut the power off in an emergency. In case of fire or explosion, the power would remain live until someone arrived with a key. It was much safer when anyone could turn the power off in an extreme situation.

That’s assuming that some dimwit wouldn’t ignore the danger signs and wouldn’t try to climb on top of the transformer.

So maybe they did need a fence. As they say, “You can’t fix stupid.”

Tom Bonner