On the Carpet: Terry Cook
Rose-colored versions of the factory wars too often underplay or overlook the factory orders that dictated whether Ford and Chrysler products would mingle on any given weekend. Consider that Drag World was born at a time when Hemi-powered stock cars were banned from NASCAR’s superspeedways; GM’s division managers were ordered to refrain from auto racing altogether; altered-wheelbase Dodges and Plymouths were banned from NHRA’s factory experimental classes; factory-backed Mustangs were forbidden from mixing it up with Mopars until Ford replaced its wedge 427 with the SOHC version—an engine banned by NASCAR even before it could be dropped into a stock car. The youngest of the three independent national weeklies published in L.A. was first to fully embrace factory experimentals, while Drag News and Drag
Sport Illustrated remained reverential to Top Fuelers, the traditional “kings of the sport” (if not for much longer).
BEFORE WE PULL THE ’CHUTE ON 1965 AND CONTINUE DOWN THE CHRONOLOGICAL QUARTERMILE TO THE 1966 SEASON
(COMING NEXT ISSUE), LET’S
VEER OUT OF THE GROOVE TO
PAY HOMAGE TO SHORT-LIVED DRAG WORLD. Drag News was far fatter, and Drag Sport Illustrated delivered finer photography, but Drag World’s modern design and overall production quality scared its older rivals into upping their respective games. Among the long-stored personal back issues retrieved to research prior installments of this series were two 1965 editions marked in red ink.
One edition’s notations indicate editorial payments to be made to freelance photographers and columnists. The other issue was marked with text corrections of mistakes missed during production. We sent sample scans cross-country to then-Associate Editor Terry Cook, who confirmed the printing and editing style of his boss, founding Publisher-Editor Mike Doherty.
Starting with a few follow-up questions about the week-toweek operations of a drag rag, we pestered poor Cook for more ancient history. We’ve edited excerpts from those written conversations into the modern version of Drag World’s “On The Carpet” interview series that Cook memorably conducted in 196566, before Jim Tice purchased the title and it became AHRA’s house organ. Cook’s name resurfaced in the masthead of the Dec. 1966 Car Craft. He graduated to editor in 1969, and then took over Hot Rod in 1972. Now 75, Cook produces customized fiberglass replicas loosely based on ’30s classic cars (Decorides.com). He recently retired from 35 years of producing Lead East, the New Jersey customs show he started after returning from California to his native New Jersey (Leadeast.com).
DRAG RACER: How did your journalism career get started?
TERRY COOK: I had a weekly
Drag News column, “New Jersey News.” I started it for free, then I got $5 per column, then $10, then $15. I was out there at Lions one night and met Mike Doherty. He had read my stuff in Drag News and offered me a job. I flew home, sold my C/Dragster, bought a 1960 Pontiac for $750, threw everything I owned in the trunk, drove across country, and started what has been a totally enjoyable and rewarding career and life. It was pure luck and fate that I had come to California just when Mike was starting up the publication.
DR: Did Doherty own Drag World?
TC: No, the original owner was Brainard Mellinger, who traveled the world importing cheap junk to the USA to sell retail. He ran ads in the Los Angeles Times seeking people who had schemes to make money. Mike saw the ad and sold him on the idea of Drag World. After the first year or so, when we were still not making a profit, Mellinger told Mike to sell it.
Our second owner was Gil Kohn. After another year of not making money, Kohn arranged to sell it to Jim Tice of AHRA. Mike told me I could move to Kansas City with the paper. Luckily, I heard there was an opening at Car Craft.
Describe a typical workweek at a drag rag.
I’d go to two or three tracks most weekends: Lions, Irwindale, San Fernando. Once I added Carlsbad on a Wednesday night. I’d come to work Monday morning, write my column and do whatever needed to be done to get the paper out: write captions, work on the “dummy” [mockup of where stories and ads went in the magazine]. Mike edited all the copy. The photogs would come by the office every Monday with stacks of photos. Doherty would usually make the selections. We worked until at least 10 p.m. Mondays. Tuesday started at the office, then we went to the printer to oversee paste-up following our dummy. I proofread each page. The drag rags all went to bed on Tuesday night and were shipped to readers on Wednesday.
How much you were paid?
I started in 1965 at $10,000 a year [about $77,000 today—Ed.]. After three years, I had worked my way up to close to $12,000. Drag World covered expenses for an out-of-town race, like Bakersfield. I don’t recall them reimbursing me for going out to Lions every Saturday night.
Many media veterans still consider the original 1965-66
Drag World to be the best-written national tabloid ever published. The paper seemed to be popular
with subscribers and fans at tracks. Why do you think Drag News and even Drag Sport
Illustrated lasted longer as independent tabloids?
There never was enough ad revenue for us or DSI to compete with the two major established players, Drag News and National Dragster. Drag News was packed with ads because Doris Herbert paid Don Rackemann some incredible commission, supposedly 35 percent or more. Drag News was always a schlock rag, journalistically, but Rack was a fabulous salesman. We never had a salesman other than Doherty, who was always busy helping put out each issue.
Drag World was also controversial at a time when bad news was downplayed or altogether ignored by ABOVE. Even after all these years, the resilient AA/Fuel Altereds refuse to go away (12 genuine “awful-awfuls” showed up at last year’s California Hot Rod Reunion.) Bans were big in 1965. From week to week, it was hard to keep track of which combinations were either being banned, rumored to be on the verge, or newly allowed. Factory politics further complicated drastic rules variables among AHRA, NHRA and NASCAR’s new drag-racing divisions.
LEFT. Two victims of two more bans were Chrysler legends Roger Lindamood and Dick Branstner, whose alteredwheelbase Color Me Gone was repossessed for violating factory edicts forbidding exhibition wheelstands and nitromethane. Dodge also collected their class-legal Color Me Gone II, the defending NHRA Nationals Stock Eliminator. In this exclusive story, builder Branstner suggested that the real reason was that their A/FXer was outrunning Dodge’s favored team of factory engineers: “We went 9.50148, and consistently beat the [Ram] ’Chargers.”
most publishers “for the good of the sport.” Do you think that a reputation for sensationalism hurt its chances in such a conservative environment?
From the start, Drag World was a class act journalistically. Issue Number One had the story about Petty’s Barracuda crashing into a crowd, an accident that other publications never mentioned because National Dragster never reported on driver deaths or any other negative news. When somebody died, the only way the drag-racing community across the nation found out was by the black condolence ads that you might see in Drag News—not allowed in Dragster. The Petty story on the front page of our first issue immediately branded Drag World as a “scandal sheet” in L.A., which of course was
[B.S.]. It was a real newspaper, like the New York Times, that was factually reporting the news, but many dunderheads in drag racing were so totally ignorant of life in the real world, they spread the scandal-sheet slur. Most likely that came from Rackemann and/or from the NHRA offices, now that they had a serious competitor. National Dragster is a house organ, not a real newspaper, and Drag News was mush.
You graduated from writing a free newspaper column to running Car Craft, then Hot Rod, in no time, then walked away from a career in your prime. How does that time in the publishing business look now, four decades further down the road?
I was blessed to work at Drag World and Petersen Publishing Company at the time I did. It was a magic golden era, the best and most-creative ten-year period of my life. I had editorial freedom with a minimum of interference from “chicken blowers” [a nickname that Cook coined for ad salesmen and publishers—Ed.]. Drag racing as we knew it, and our memories of it, are going the way of the buggy whip and rotary telephone. We were blessed to live through that glorious era when dragsters smoked the tires on purpose.
Now, with the USA and the entire world going straight down the [crapper] while the youths of America are only concerned with taking a selfie of themselves in their new, stubble-faced look of a bum beard, I’m just trying to squeak out a living and survive perhaps another healthy 20 years of existence.
Drag World quoted the Houston Post’s coverage of astronaut Gordon Cooper’s 100foot wheelie in Preston Honea’s Hemi-powered Rambler Marlin and his plans to reteam with Gemini V partner Gus Grissom in
a two-car factory team. Cooper sounded confident that NASA would sign off on the venture in time for February’s season openers, but we’ve not found published evidence of either the rumored A/FXer or exhibition wheelstander ever materializing.
BELOW. Irwindale Raceway’s recent opening nailed Fontana’s coffin shut for the third time in its brief existence. Current racer residents of an area that’s since been absorbed into metropolitan L.A.’s traffic jam might be surprised to learn that 50 miles from downtown seemed too far to tow or drive at a time when Lions, San Fernando, Pomona, and now, Irwindale operated closer to population centers. Earlier this season, the same fate befell Palmdale and San Diego Raceways, signaling the end of SoCal’s track-building boom (OCIR being the notable exception, launching in
Drag racing as we knew it, and our memories of it, are going the way of the buggy whip and rotary telephone. We were blessed to live through that glorious era when dragsters smoked the tires on purpose.
For the third week straight, Doherty and Cook broke big front-page news above the fold. Young Prudhomme had been the hottest driver for Top Fuel’s hottest car owner, Roland Leong, and tuner, Keith Black. The trio had just won both of NHRA’s biggest, oldest national events at Pomona and Indy, yet Prudhomme elected to strike out on his own by touring the B&M Torkmaster Special previously campaigned by
Kenny Safford, but actually owned by B&M’s Spar brothers. Snake wisely retained old buddy Dave Zeuschel as the fueler’s engine builder.
Text by Current Car Craft Editor John McGann (left) met his flamboyant predecessor at the Oct. 2016 reunion that Terry Cook organized for the magazine’s alumni in Bakersfield.
The first page of the first issue established a new form of journalism that wasn’t acceptable to everyone in SoCal’s influential community of racers, sponsors, advertisers and publishers. The worst day of Richard Petty’s career was barely mentioned elsewhere in the racing press, as if the fatal crash wasn’t already well covered by the national media.
Here’s one of the two 1965 issues believed to be editor Mike Doherty’s personal marked-up copies. His red corrections indicate the attention to detail that resulted in the best layouts, writing quality and copy editing of any drag rag.
Publisher-Editor Doherty marked up a second copy of each issue with editorial payments due his paid freelance contributors (or not, as indicated by the “n.c.” on the Sonic I’s publicity shot). Five bucks (worth about $40 today) was the going rate for a fresh, exclusive track photo or the occasional illustration, while columnists fared much better. Note that two contributors to this Nov. 19 edition were brothers, writer A.B. and artist Bernie Shuman. The occasional inclusion of land-speed results by all of the period’s drag rags reflected the sport’s roots in dry-lakes time trials.