Ever since Wally Parks and some friends took hot rods off the street and organized a sport called drag racing in the early 1950s, it has been pitched as a family sport.
Sometimes it has been, and sometimes it has been a family breaker-upper. But today, in the ranks of top-fuel drivers, family is definitely the in thing.
Shirley Muldowney, the three-time world champion in the second year of a remarkable comeback, has her son, John, as a key member of her crew.
Darrell Gwynn, everyone’s nominee as a future world champion, has his father, Jerry, as his crew chief.
But the most unusual case is Dick LaHaie, a long-time independent driver from Lansing, Mich., who is coming into the 1987 season with a big-bucks sponsor and his first realistic shot at the world championship.
LaHaie’s crew chief is his 26-year-old daughter, Kim.
Until this year, when LaHaie can finally afford the luxury of another hand--son Jeff, 28--Kim was not only the crew chief, but chief mechanic and the entire crew.
“Kim came to work for me in 1982 and seemed so ideal in the job that I sold my business in 1983 and the two of us went racing full time,” LaHaie said. “Sometimes I feel like we’ve made it work on sheer willpower.
“It’s amazing how much Kim and I seem to think alike. It’s almost like we’re two people thinking out of the same brain.”
During the off-season, LaHaie, 44, replaced Gary Beck on Larry Minor’s Miller American team, assuring the Michigan veteran financial support this season. For the past few years, LaHaie was one of the few drag racers making a living off what he earned in competition.
“This is a dream come true for Kim and me,” he said. “We have always felt we could compete if we had the proper financial backing, but my first rule has always been never let my ego get in front of my wallet.
“Earning a living is one thing. Winning a championship is another. This year, we hope to be able to do both.”
LaHaie has wanted to be a drag racer for as long as he can remember, clear back to when he was 11 or 12 and ran across a copy of Car Craft magazine with pictures of those funny looking hot rods.
“I was so tuned to speed that I took apart my folks’ lawn mower, changed the exhaust system and a few other things so it would go fast. I wanted to mow the grass faster than anybody on the block.
“I read everything I could find about drag racing. Guys like Emery Cook, Don Garlits and the Greek (Chris Karamesines) were my childhood idols. Drag racing was all I ever wanted to do. Even when I had my own business, I was still racing on the side.”
Kim LaHaie, on the other hand, has tested many waters. She grew up around her dad’s garage, but she had her own ideas of what she wanted. In nearly each new venture, however, Kim drew on her innate mechanical aptitude.
At 12, she had her own motorcycle, and she spent as much time tearing it down and rebuilding it as she did riding.
When she started racing motocross, there was no class for girls, so she raced against the boys. She found out early that they didn’t relish the idea.
“They seemed to enjoy shoving me around and knocking me down,” she recalled ruefully. “One time I was down and a couple of guys ran right over me.”
At 16, she got her first car, a ’71 Vega, which she immediately took apart and tried to make into a little hot rod.
After high school, where she had been an all-star basketball and softball player, she left Michigan to “do my thing” in California, settling in San Jose, where she had an aunt.
“My first job was driving a water truck for a construction gang,” she said. She got the job because she was the one who could keep the truck running.
“Once you get the hang of how an engine works, it’s all relative,” she said casually, putting some of the thousands of parts in place on one of the $40,000 engines that power her dad over a quarter-mile strip of asphalt at better than 260 m.p.h.
“There’s not all that much difference between engines in a motorcycle, a water truck or a dragster, except that there’s a lot more parts in one of these.”
Dick is justly proud of his daughter’s talents. He likes to tell a story of how she repaired the carburetor on her water truck by telephone.
“I got a phone call from Kim one day from San Jose wanting some help. She told me the problem, and it turned out to be the float in the carb. She’d never worked on one before, but I talked her through it, telling her what to do with each piece. It must have taken 15 minutes, but when she called me the next day and said it was running, I was really proud of her.”
After a couple of years in California, Kim decided to go back home and help her father with his race car.
“When she said she wanted to go to the races with me I thought she’d probably sell T-shirts and hand out photographs to fans,” LaHaie recalled. “But she got in and worked right alongside my crew chief.”
In 1982, shortly before the U.S. Nationals, the most important event of the National Hot Rod Assn. season, LaHaie’s only crewman abruptly quit.
“I was devasted,” LaHaie said. “I had spent so much time and effort and money for that race and suddenly I had no one to run things.
“I turned to Kim and told her, ‘We’re going to go. You’re going to have to do it all yourself--everything he did.’ Kim had never gone through the starting line routine in her life. When we showed up, and there was Kim out in the staging lane, giving me instructions, you should have seen the jaws dropping.
“It was bad enough her having to do it for the first time all by herself, but she had to do it in front of 30,000 to 40,000 people. I couldn’t believe it myself. She reacted like she’d been doing it for 10 years.”
LaHaie qualified quicker and faster than he had ever run in his career.
“Everything just fell together,” he said.”
No one but Kim has done it since.
Father is not the only one who appreciates Kim’s talents. In the last two years, she has been one of the three finalists in the voting for Car Craft crew chief of the year.
Kim LaHaie describes what she does on the starting line from the time the car is rolled into position and the green light signals the start:
“First, I get the engine started, then I check the oil pressure and look to see if there is any fluid leaking.
“Before the burnout (spinning the rear wheels in a liquid solution to heat up the tires), I give him a hand sign to let him know what’s going on with the car. He’s strapped in the seat and I’m his only contact with the outside. He can look at me and know what I’m thinking.
“At the start of the burnout, before he lets it go, I watch the engine area closely for any problems.
“When he rolls back to the line after smoking the tires, I make sure he’s lined up with his burnout tracks. Rubber to rubber adheres better than rubber to asphalt, so I want him right on line with the rubber he’s just laid down.
“Then he does a dry burnout, just a short blip, about three car lengths. He tries to simulate the start and I watch to see if the tires spin, or if a cylinder’s not running, or anything out of the ordinary. I can tell from the color of the vapor if a cylinder’s down.
“As he backs up the car, I either talk or motion to him with hand signals. If a cylinder’s not running, I give him the number and he can correct it before the start.
“Just before the start, I check the snap on his face shield, look at the gauges, walk around the car checking on the header pipes and then go off to the side of the car to watch the run.
“I watch closely the first couple of hundred yards to see how the car launches and then I climb in the truck and get down to the end of the strip to pick him up. If we win, it’s back to the pits with 90 minutes to get ready for the next run.
“We take a look at the video tape that Claudia (LaHaie’s fiancee) takes during the run, and then I start making the changes we need before the next run.”
Kim, a competitive young woman who once played semi-pro softball, would like to race a top fuel dragster herself, but it will have to wait.
“My big desire is to see my dad win the world championship before I drive,” she said.
So far, she has never even taken the 270-inch slingshot for a solo run.
“I sat in the car once with the engine running, warming it up. That was enough to get my adrenaline going.”
The biggest problem is money, Dick said.
“We figure it would cost us close to $450,000 just to teach her the ropes,” he said. “Fuel alone costs $30 a gallon and it takes 10 gallons for one (quarter mile) run. Tires are $500 a pair and they’re only good for about five runs. A clutch costs $3,000 and it’s good for about eight runs. That gives you an idea of how the figures run up fast.
“We figure, if absolutely nothing goes wrong and we have a clean run, without breaking any parts, a single run costs $1,500.”
The cost ledger explains why LaHaie, as an independent, never ran the full NHRA national championship season before 1986.
“There were times we felt we could do well in a national meet, but we begged off to go match racing where we knew we had a guarantee,” he said. “This will be the first year we can pursue the world championship and have a serious chance to win.
“I’m so thankful we came up the way we did, though. We had a lot of extra pressure, but we also had a lot of self-satisfaction.”
Although LaHaie replaced former world champion Gary Beck on Minor’s team, LaHaie will retain his home base in Lansing, Mich., while the rest of Minor’s team, which includes funny car driver Ed (Ace) McCulloch and off-road racing vehicles, will operate out of Hemet.
LaHaie made the most of his first race with Minor by winning the Superbowl of Dragracing two weeks ago at Firebird Raceway in Chandler, Ariz.
“We went over there to try some new combinations and they worked so well we decided to race,” Kim said. “It was a good day for the team.”
Minor was fast qualifier, and LaHaie qualified third, then defeated veteran Connie Kalitta in the final.
Now comes Pomona and the 17th annual Winternationals, Thursday through Sunday at the L. A. County Fairplex.
“We’ve always run pretty well out here,” LaHaie said. “I like the idea of having a paved pit area to work in, and the track is always maintained very well. Normally, you look for some of the fastest times of the year at Pomona.”
LaHaie won the Winternationals in 1982 and last year had the best run of his career--5.4 seconds at a top speed of 264.70 m.p.h.--in becoming fast qualifier at the Winternationals.
It was the start of LaHaie’s best season. He won the Keystone Nationals in Reading, Pa., and the Fallnationals in Phoenix and was in the finals four other times. He finished third, behind three-time champion Don Garlits and Darrell Gwynn, in the year-end standings. He also won the American Drag Racing Assn. Spring Nationals at Tulsa.
This week, LaHaie will be in the same Dave Uyehara-built dragster he campaigned last year, but it will look different. It is all red--the first time one of LaHaie’s top fuelers has ever been that color.
A new car is being built by Uyehara for LaHaie to debut at the next NHRA event--in Gainesville, Fla.
Minor will have a new chassis for Gainesville, too, but neither he nor LaHaie has succumbed to the Garlits-led trend toward streamlined cars with canopies to deflect the air.
“Larry and I aren’t convinced that streamlining will help enough because of the added weight,” LaHaie said. “That’s just like taking away horsepower.”