Big John Mazmanian, a legendary car owner and builder who towered over the "gasser wars" era of Southern California drag racing, has died. He was 80.
Mazmanian died July 21 of complications from leukemia at a Mission Viejo hospital, his granddaughter Jackie Sukiasian told the Associated Press on Friday.
In the 1960s and '70s, Mazmanian's name was practically a household word in Southland racing circles, thanks to promotions for "gasser" and "funny car" competitions at the region's drag strips each weekend.
In "Billy the Mountain," a song filled with in-joke references to Southern California, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention refer to a Mazmanian funny car competition at the Irwindale Speedway.
The 6-foot-5 Mazmanian towered over most of his fellow owners. The racer was born in East Los Angeles and was a football standout at Garfield High School. He enlisted in the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served in the Pacific. He received shrapnel wounds in the battle for Leyte Gulf.
He got his start building cars before he was old enough to drive them, rebuilding a 1932 Ford into a "highboy roadster" for an auto shop class at 14.
"It just got into his blood after that," said his son, Vic Mazmanian. "He just loved building cars and he loved racing."
Soon he was building or customizing other cars, painting them his trademark candy apple red and racing them at tracks around the country. He started with "gassers," customized versions of street-legal cars that were powered by gasoline. In this early period, he converted standard stock model Corvettes and Willys. His most noted car from this period was a 1941 Willys with a Chrysler Hemi engine.
In the 1960s, he moved up to "funny cars," more powerful automobiles powered by a potent mixture that includes nitroglycerin and whose large back tires emit a huge cloud of burned rubber smoke at the beginning of a drag race. His cars were driven by such well-known figures in the sport as Mike Snively and Danny Ongais.
"We were breaking the 200 mph barrier back then, and under six seconds, which was very fast for that time," his son recalled.
Mazmanian, the owner and operator of Mazmanian Disposal, a Los Angeles waste management business, retired from racing in 1972 but remained a popular figure on the funny car circuit, signing autographs and letting people see his vintage cars.
Although best known in Southern California, Mazmanian also raced throughout the country. He was inducted into the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Hall of Fame in 1989.
In addition to his granddaughter Jackie and son, Vic, Mazmanian is survived by his wife, Alice; a daughter, Cathy Sukiasian; another granddaughter and three grandsons.