The Old and New Of It

’m like a lot of race fans. I always look at the nitro qualifying sheets wheneverI can and pore over them. Originally, I used to do that to check the times, but elapsed times and mile per hour readings are pretty much passé given that NHRA is trying to slow the cars down, and poor old IHRA races nitro cars that have smaller budgets and consequently lesser performance.

Now my interest is pretty much confined to the names of the players rather than numbers. In the past two or three years, I’ve noticed with modest excitement the advent of very new Top Fuel drivers like Antron Brown, Spencer Massey, Shawn Langdon, and for the purposes of this piece, rookie driver Del Cox Jr. 

I use the term “modest” because these guys are all hired guns. They don’t run their respective operations but race thanks to the largesse of well-known backers who can get grand theft sponsorship. As one familiar example, Massey, the 2008 IHRA Top Fuel World Champ replaced Larry Dixon behind the wheel of Don Prudhomme’s U.S. Smokeless dragster. Of these four, Cox is of special interest.

In contrast to this, I also notice with some pangs of remorse the absence behind the wheel of the racers who got me through the first 40 or so years of my now approaching 50 years of spectatorhood. Guys like Brown, Langdon, Massey, and Cox weren’t even born or were infants when Prudhomme, Don Garlits, Shirley Muldowney, Gary Beck, and James Warren types were running wild. However, there is one glorious exception to this reality, and I got to see him at work during ESPN’s coverage of the NHRA Summer Nationals at Heartland Park Topeka.

That exception was Chris “the Golden Greek” Karamesines, who, as he was pulling alongside current day Top Fuel king Tony Schumacher was announced as being 80 years old. EIGHTY YEARS OLD? Eighty is something like three years beyond the normal human life span for men! How old is that? Try this comparative historic spiel (and I’ve used it once before when Karamesines was much younger – ‘72 or ‘73).

At the time, Karamesines received drag racing’s first nitro 200-mph time slip in April of 1960, Johnny Unitas was quarterback for the Baltimore Colts, Jim Brown led the NFL in rushing, Ted Williams was still playing for the Boston Red Sox, “Sugar Ray” Robinson was still a top-ten middleweight boxer, and Muhammad Ali was entering his first year of pro boxing.

This man is at eighty, racing in major league competition in a major league (or at least semi-major) sport, and old enough to be the president’s father. Most guys at eighty are having someone drive them through the pits in a golf cart, and with “the Greek” he’s driving that cart with a glass of Chivas with the youthful outlook of someone far younger. I cannot think of another sport where a man with “the Greek’s” experience is competing at that level and that includes golf, pool, and poker.

Amazingly, Karamesines is apparently taking on a full schedule this year. Last season, he didn’t run a single NHRA event, and just a few in IHRA. He started out 2009’s campaign in the first two weekends in March at the IHRA Mardi Gras Nationals in Baton Rouge, La., and the NHRA Gatornationals DNQing at the bottom of the sheets. The same thing happened at the NHRA events in Houston and Atlanta, and at the IHRA event in Rockingham, N.C.

Howwwevvaah… Karamesines came to life at the NHRA Midwest Nationals in St. Louis and at the aforementioned NHRA Summer Nationals at Topeka… He qualified!!

At St. Louis, he ran a 4.435/214.66 to get in the 15th spot, only to leave before the Tree activated in round one against Cory McClenathan. At Topeka he qualified 14th in a 15-car show and sparkled at the lights in a first-round bout with Schumacher. My drunken friends told me that Karamesines gave Cory Mac all he could handle, losing by only about 15 car lengths.

Okay, facetiousness aside, that’s still pretty impressive for an athletic octogenarian. I know I speak for fellow Karamesines fanatic and el jefe, Jeff Burk, when I say that it’s likely “the Greek” will probably not make the winner’s circle at any Hot Rod Association event, but if he does that should be a Sports Illustrated cover story.