Drag Racing Is in Toliver's Blood, It's True, It's True

For someone who has raced boats at more than 215 mph and cars at more than 315 mph, it was a bit surprising when Jerry Toliver said one of the biggest thrills in his career was standing on a podium at the NHRA Motorsports Museum.

"Art Chrisman, my uncle and my greatest hero, was on one side of me, and Dale Armstrong, my crew chief and the man who masterminded Kenny Bernstein's record 300-mph run, was on the other," explained Toliver. "You can't get better than that.

"Beside Chrisman was the old No. 25 car he drove that was the first to break 140 mph, and beside Armstrong was Bernstein's 300-mph dragster. It made me feel like I was the link between the past and the present. For me to be standing there, between those two, was remarkable, I thought."

Toliver, as is the National Hot Rod Assn., is 50 this year.

Although Toliver, driver of the World Wrestling Federation-sponsored funny car, grew up in a racing environment, he has been a professional drag racer for only a little more than three years. He burst into the spotlight in the final race of 1999 by upsetting multi-champion John Force in the Auto Club Finals at Pomona.

"Hey, I've been a drag racer all my life, really," the third-generation driver said at his race shop in Riverside.

"Some of my earliest memories are of racing. My grandfather, Everett Chrisman, started it all with his sons, Art and Lloyd. I was 4 or 5 when my grandfather, they called him Pop, would come to our house in Compton, riding a big old Harley-Davidson. He'd put me up front, on the tank, and ride me to the racing shop in Willowbrook. You can imagine what a thrill that was for a little tyke.

"There were race cars all over the place and I felt like a kid turned loose in a candy shop.

"I remember going to races to watch Uncle Art and Uncle Jack [grandfather Everett's brother] race, as far back as I can remember."

Art and Jack are members of the NHRA Hall of Fame.

Art drove the first car to make a pass in the NHRA's first national event, at Great Bend, Kan., in 1955, and four years later, in his famed No. 25 dragster, was the first winner of the U.S. Fuel & Gas championship in Bakersfield.

Jack, who died in 1989, is considered the NHRA's first big-name star. In 1961 he won the inaugural Winternationals at Pomona and the NHRA top-eliminator championship. He also is credited with developing the funny car when he showcased Sachs & Sons' Mercury Comet, the sport's first nitro-burning funny car, in an exhibition.

"Art and my mother [Juanita] have always been very supportive of my racing and having the Chrismans as my uncles gave me instant credibility at the race track," Toliver said. "They are legends in the sport and mention of their name has opened doors for me."

Mom Toliver, as his mother is known around the NHRA, attends six to eight races a year, works in the race shop office three days a week and runs the Jerry Toliver Fan Club. One of her sons, Craig, is a member of the Toliver crew.

Uncle Art and his son, Mike, operate CARS (Chrisman Auto Rod Specialists) in Santa Ana, where they build and restore street rods.

"With that kind of background, I was into fast cars as soon as I could drive," Toliver said. "When I was 15 or so, I had a hopped up '56 Chevy II Nova that I would cruise out to Bob's Big Boy in Whittier and take on all comers. We'd go out to some industrial road late at night and go at it.

"I don't think I ever lost a street challenge. From there, I drove at drag strips in production classes, but by then I was into boats. Our family used to vacation at the Colorado River and Uncle Art bought a flat-bottom when I was 12 or 13 and I thought that was the ultimate, to run up and down the river. I started going to drag-boat races at Long Beach Marine Stadium and eventually I got myself a top-fuel hydro."

For five years, Toliver was a mainstay of the International Hot Boat Assn. circuit.

A violent crash at Puddingstone Lake in San Dimas in October of 1995 ended his boating career.

"Puddingstone was kind of rough and I hit a roller going through the lights and flipped upside down at about 214 [mph]," he said. "It broke the capsule off, which turned out to be fortunate for me because when the [safety crew] got to me, I was unconscious but the capsule was floating with me in it."

Toliver suffered a broken back and hand and took in a lot of water.

"I was out of the hospital in a week but it took me a year to heal up right," he said.

Like drag-boat champion Eddie Hill before him, Toliver's next move was from boats to cars.

"I bought a car from Gary Clapshaw in 1997 and decided to start right off running nitro funny cars," he said. "Even before I won a race, my car attracted attention because it was sponsored by MAD magazine. When the WWF decided to get involved with drag racing, we worked right in with their program.

"We have a great relationship with the WWF. One reason is that the demographic crossover is almost an overlay between wrestling and drag racing."

After winning national events at Pomona, Gainesville, Fla., and Madison, Ill., last year and finishing third in points behind Force and Ron Capps, Toliver has fallen on hard times this year. Without a win, he has dropped out of the top 10 and on Tuesday he dropped teammate Tony Bartone, becoming a one-car team.

"It surprised us, how much the bar has been raised in funny cars this year," said Armstrong, who remained as Toliver's crew chief. "Running a two-car team is very difficult. It more than doubles the problems. We hope, with everyone concentrating on Jerry's car, we'll get back in the hunt.

"To illustrate how far funny car has come in a year, we ran a 4.900 at Chicago and were on the bubble [slowest of the 16 qualifiers]. A year ago, a 4.9 would have been good for the pole at some events."

Sprint Cars

After a successful Fourth of July show Wednesday night at Perris Auto Speedway, the Sprint Car Racing Assn. heads for Santa Maria Speedway and its tiny one-third-mile oval Saturday night.

Cory Kruseman, who was winless during the SCRA's Midwestern tour last month, padded his season points lead slightly by winning the 50-lap Perris main event in impressive fashion. After running down early leader Rickie Gaunt on the 10th lap, Kruseman was never seriously challenged.

Three-time champion Richard Griffin, who won three of the six tour events to make a dent in Kruseman's lead, finished second after a slow start. John Scott was third, followed by Mike Kirby and Gaunt.

After the Santa Maria race, the SCRA will return to Perris July 14.

Motorcycles

The longest speedway race of the year, the 25-lap Championship Classic on the Orange County Fairgrounds' tiny oval track, should be a wide-open affair, what with favorites Brad Oxley and Charlie Venegas sitting it out. Oxley, a four-time winner, is also the track's promoter and is skipping this race. Venegas, last year's winner, is recuperating from a broken leg suffered in an ice racing crash in St. Louis.

Former winners Gary Hicks and Chris Manchester, and young Ryan Fisher figure to be strong contenders in the marathon race. Speedway races are usually only four laps.

Road racing champion Mat Mladin, fined and docked points for "detrimental conduct" during a post-race press conference at New Hampshire, will be back on his Yoshimura Suzuki this weekend at the Honda International Superbike Classic at Laguna Seca Raceway.

Mladin, two-time defending AMA Superbike champion, has won three of seven races this season and holds a 30-point lead over Eric Bostrom. Nicky Hayden, last year's Laguna Seca winner, is third.

The event showcases national championship and world championship riders.

Irwindale Speedway

Star Formula Mazdas will make their only appearance of the season at Irwindale Speedway on Saturday night. U.S. Auto Club western midget champion Wally Pankratz will make his Mazda debut in the open-wheel race. Also on the program are super-late models, Grand American modifieds and modified 4s and Ultra Wheel super trucks.

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This Week's Races

WINSTON CUP, Pepsi 400

When: Saturday, race (NBC, 5 p.m.)

Where: Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach, Fla.

2000 winner: Jeff Burton.

Next race: Tropicana 400, July 15, Joliet, Ill.

On the net: http://www.nascar.com.

BUSCH, GNC Live Well 200

When: Saturday, qualifying, noon; Sunday, race (TNT, 10 a.m.)

Where: Watkins Glen, Watkins Glen, N.Y.

2000 winner: Ron Fellows.

Next race: Sam's Club/Hills Bros. 300, July 14, Joliet, Ill.

On the net: http://www.nascar.com.

CRAFTSMAN TRUCKS

O'Reilly Auto Parts 250

When: Today, qualifying, noon; Saturday, race (ESPN, 10 a.m.)

Where: Kansas Speedway, Kansas City, Kan.

2000 winner: Inaugural race.

Next race: Kroger 225, July 14, Sparta, Ky.

On the net: http://www.nascar.com.

IRL, Ameristar Casino Indy 200

When: Saturday, qualifying, 12:15 p.m.; (ESPN2, 3 p.m., tape); Sunday, race (ABC, 3 p.m., tape)

Where: Kansas Speedway.

2000 winner: Inaugural event.

Next race: Harrah's Indy 200, July 21, Gladeville, Tenn.

On the net: http://www.indyracingleague.com.

NHRA, Pep Boys 50th Anniversary Nationals

When: Today, qualifying, 3:30 p.m. (ESPN2, 4:30 p.m.); Saturday, eliminations, 4 p.m. (ESPN2, 7 p.m.)

Where: Pomona Raceway, Pomona.

2000 winner: Inaugural event.

Next race: Mopar Parts Mile-High Nationals, July 22, Denver.

On the net: http://www.nhra.com.

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