The Long and Winding Road
To truly know Arnold Birky, one
needs to understand his childhood. If there was one factor that
defined the Birky family dynamic in the pre and post-World War
II years, it was that the household was constantly on the move.
Arnold's dad, David, worked in heavy construction and that required
him to frequently relocate the family to places all over the
continental United States. Of the five Birky offspring, only
Perry was born in California (Oakland). The rest of the brood
were born all over the West: twins Betty and Nancy in Colorado,
Judy in Globe, Arizona, and Arnold in Albany, Oregon. When Arnold
was 9 years old, his dad contracted for a job in Alaska and the
family moved to Fairbanks: his parents, five kids, a goat, a
dog, and two chickens all piled into their '46 Ford and headed
way up north
north to Alaska
rush was on." Arnold's dad not only helped construct the
famous Alcan Highway, but also worked on the DEW Line. (this
was a time when the Cold War was an unnerving daily reality,
and as a deterrent to a strike "over the Pole", the
United States constructed a series of early-warning radar stations
in the high Arctic, the so-called DEW Line).
By the time Arnold was a teenager,
the family was back in Northern California and living in Napa.
As with all large families, there were occasional squabbles and
spats. The senior Birky, of German ancestry, was old school and
a strict disciplinarian. At times, Arnold would spar and clash
with his dad over the rules laid down for him. This mounting
tension eventually hit a flash point when Arnold was fifteen
years old. After a particularly vitriolic exchange one day, Arnold
ran away, all the way back to Alaska. Although probably a little
bit naïve, he had this dream of hitting it big in the logging
business. The pot of gold never did materialize, but he remained
in Fairbanks for two years working and going to school. Eventually,
Arnold reconciled with his dad. He returned home to Santa Rosa
in 1958 at age seventeen to tend the home fires on Brittain Lane
while his dad was away on a construction project in Greenland.
Arnold on his Huffy top fuel bike; delivering the
A kid's soap box derby, Alaskan style; Arnold's bomb-shaped
bullet is on the left.
It should not
be a surprise that Arnold Birky has been a life long drag racer:
bikes and soap box racers are fairly normal fare for a boy, but
tractors? "Out of my way, house"!
This is a backyard in the North Woods; lots of time
for unstructured play-- ample opportunity to develop the aptitudes
and skills that would benefit Arnold later in life.
A family portrait at the home in Napa
when Arnold Birky was 15 years old. Shortly after this picture
was taken, Arnold "ran away" (back) to Alaska.
When Arnold returned from Alaska in 1958, the family
lived on a "ranch" on Brittain Lane (Santa Rosa); Perry;
Betty; Nancy; mom (Blanche); and Judy.
Candid shot of Arnold in front of Fairbanks High
Rods and Customs
With things returning to normal,
Arnold began customizing a 1949 Ford convertible that his dad
had bought for him. Arnold had a dream of one day becoming a
famous builder of custom cars. His initial creation, "White
Mist" was the first car in Santa Rosa equipped with chrome
wheels. Though heavy at 4500 lbs, Arnold took his1955 Ford-powered
cruiser to nearby Cotati Drag Strip and coaxed a 19 second run
out of it. The thrill and excitement of drag racing, even at
this tepid pace, had an immediate affect on him. No longer content
to be just the next George Barris, Arnold quickly started looking
around for a street car to hop up. He eventually settled on a
1932 Ford Sedan powered by a 258 cid Ford flathead engine. "The
Hot Box" was Arnold's first legitimate race car and a frequent
class winner at Cotati with a best e.t. of 14.35 and top speed
of 100 mph. As he won more and more class trophies at Cotati,
finding time to customize show cars became more and more difficult.
Though he never quit or gave up on either hobby, it was drag
racing that would define, shape, and mold his motor sports career.
"White Mist"; Arnold initially thought
that some day he could be a famous designer of custom cars.
Arnold's '32 ford sedan--"The Hot Box";
now, there are some interesting implications here, but let's
just say it was a pretty fast street machine.
Arnold posing proudly with his first trophy; Cotati
Drag Strip, April 1959.
It's Spring and time to drag race; Cotati Drag Strip
It's Spring and time to drag race; Cotati
Drag Strip (1959).
This was originally a Model A coupe,
but Arnold cut off the roof, welded together some exhaust tubing
for a roll cage, and put an engine where the river would have
originally sat. Built to race against friend and rival Jimmy
Haire, Arnold sold it before ever taking it to the strip.
When Arnold wasn't at the
drag strip with the "Hot Box" or cruising around Santa
Rosa in "White Mist", he worked at a local grocery
store. It was fairly monotonous work and he was getting a bit
restless. One of the neighbors on Brittain Lane was a military
recruiter and talked him into joining the Marines. It would turn
out to be a good decision. The experience not only provided him
with the valuable skills and tools to be successful in life,
but also renewed his faith and belief in the United States of
America. After two years in the service, he returned home to
Santa Rosa totally rejuvenated and ready to take on life's challenges.
He was also ready to get back to the drag strip. With Detroit
manufacturing lots of high performance passenger cars, Arnold
purchased a brand new 1960 Ford Galaxie Sunliner. With a 352
cid engine, and up against such notables as Gas Rhonda, Arnold
pushed his Super Stock Ford to a best of 13.90 at 104mph. All
he needed now was a job that paid enough money to help defray
the cost of racing. Carl Wilson, owner of a local body and paint
business and familiar with Arnold's talent as a fabricator, offered
him a job. Around the same time, Arnold started dating Darlene
Saunders, a young woman from Guerneville that he had met at a
dance; a short time later they were married.
Everything seemed to be going
along just great when an unexpected and terrible accident occurred.
Though his working relationship with Carl had been fine, Arnold
left his mentor for a more lucrative position with another employer;
he took a job at a wreaking yard restoring salvageable cars.
Working at the yard one day with a cutting torch, a gas line
was severed and Arnold suffered horrific burns to his face. So
severe were the injuries that he spent the good part of two years
convalescing and recovering from the accident. During this entire
time his good friend and ex-employer, Carl Wilson, made sure
Arnold was as comfortable as possible. Carl even rigged up a
television for him to watch; there were no TVs in hospital rooms
back then. If that wasn't enough, Carl offered him a job back
at his shop as soon as he was able. When it was time, Arnold
went back to work at the repair shop. He also resumed his favorite
hobby--building race cars.
Using his experience from the
body and fender business, he took a Model A chassis, turned it
upside down, cut up a '27 T body, and assembled a gasoline burning
modified roadster powered by a stock 264 cid '56 Buick motor.
Running C/MR at Cotati and Vaca Valley, the little red roadster
ran 13.20-102 until Arnold decided to put nitro into it one day
and "killed" the motor. This would be the last of his
homemade race cars; the next stop: the classifieds and junior
Arnold's '27 T roadster
in front of his first shop that he shared with George Hall in
Santa Rosa (1962).
The Birky back yard: let's go drag racing!
In the years from 1962 through
1969 Arnold owned and raced three dragsters; they were all powered
by carbureted or injected Chevy engines and all called The Runaway
(personal reference to the past?). As was common at the time,
the first one was constructed out of tail pipe tubing; Arnold
ran it in C/GD. It was during this time that he teamed up with
another Santa Rosa drag racer named Bobby Neal; the two would
stay together for over 30 years with only brief respites now
and then. Bobby was an auto salesman at Kassin Chevrolet and
Arnold worked as a body man for Dorsett Body and Paint. The next
Runaway was purchased from John Batto. Arnold and Bobby initially
shared the driving chores; Arnold would drive at Cotati and Bobby
at Vaca Valley. This arrangement lasted until Arnold had a crash
after the throttle stuck open during a run at Cotati. Following
that accident, Bobby Neal would become the permanent driver of
The Runaway. This was Arnold and Bobby's "learner dragster",
and with a 283 cid Chevy on gas, recorded a best time of 10.40
and 138 mph. Later, the guys dropped a 327 cid engine between
the rails, and on alcohol, ran a respectable 10.18-154 mph. In
1967 this Runaway was sold and replaced with the dragster with
which both would earn considerable notoriety. Purchased from
Noel Black of B&N Automotive (Sacramento CA) in 1967, it
began with a 327 cid Chevy on alcohol, and later, a 360 cid Chevy
on 30% nitro. But, it was in its legal junior fueler trim (displacement
not to exceed 310 cubic inches) that the team of Birky-Neal garnered
their greatest success. So successful was the car that on May
19, 1968, they actually won a Top Fuel Eliminator title with
the little 301 cid engine on 89% nitro. By the time the car was
sold in 1969, they had run as quick as 7.72 and as fast as 194
One day in front of his house, Arnold decided to
make a short burst down Hunter Lane in The Runaway; He popped
a big wheelie, severely damaging the chassis on the "blue
The Runaway after being lengthened to 120" by
Bobby Neal doing his best Gary Gabelich imitation;
"The Backyard Terrors" at Fremont Raceway, 1968.
Having problems in the traps at Sacramento raceway--fuel
line broke; "What, me worry?"
A common sight at Sacramento Raceway: Bobby Neal
"getting out" on an opponent; this time it happened
to Jimmy Haire.
Bobby Neal stringing
together round wins on his may to top fuel eliminator; he beat
Jim Brandy in the finals-Sacramento Raceway, 1968.
Bobby Neal was slow with just about
everything but driving a race car (Arnold nicknamed him "The
Worm"); a great "leaver", here, he puts the hurt
on Jim Brandy.
Arnold and Bobby took their car to Lions for the
1968 PDA meet; starter Larry Sutton looks on.
In the lights at Vaca Valley on the 194 mph run:
Can one imagine those cones on a race track today?
What? No incremental times; time
slip from a simpler era.
Arnold and Bobby's motor in Gene Gilmore's junior
fueler; this little screamer ran 197 mph!
Steve Reyes captured "The Worm" giving
the obligatory "V for Vctory" salute; Fremont raceway,
There was no greater rite of
passage in drag racing than moving "up" to race in
the top fuel dragster class. In 1970, Birky-Neal made their move
when they purchased a Tuttle chassis and put a supercharged 454
cid Chrysler engine between the frame rails. It was initially
run as an AA/GD, but that did not last more than a few races.
On a whim, they bought some alcohol just to see how the car would
perform. It so exceeded their expectations that they got to bragging
about how strong it ran. Later, they would discover that the
fuel they had purchased actually contained a 5%/95% nitro/methanol
ratio. With a "What the heck, we might just as well run
it on nitro" decision, they made the jump into the top fuel
ranks. The car was given a (red) paint job and a new name, Northwind.
When all was said and done, they had over $8,000.00 invested
in their new baby. With Bobby Neal at the wheel, the car debuted
June 13, 1970 at Sacramento Raceway. As a member of the Northern
California top fuel dragster fraternity, Northwind was a frequent
competitor at Redding, Fremont, and Sacramento duking it out
with guys like Dave Uyehara, Gary Ormsby, Frankie Martinez, and
John Shoemaker. Before the team retired the car at the end of
1971, it ran as quick as 6.85 with a top speed of 227 mph.
By 1971, the heyday of the front
engine top fuel dragster was just about over. Don Garlits' horrific
clutch explosion with his FED at Lions Drag Strip in March 1970
launched a new design with the engine and clutch assembly behind
the driver. It wasn't an entirely new concept, but Garlits' design,
and his immediate success with the RED, created a mass exodus
from the old style slingshot. By 1972, just about every top fuel
racer had converted over to the new concept; Birky-Neal was no
exception. When Bill Whishart could not come up with the cash
to buy a new Woody Gilmore RED, Birky-Neal, along with John Anderson
of Napa, purchased it. By the time it was ready to roll, they
had almost $12,000.00 invested in Northern California's first
RED. It was during this time that Arnold bought a body and paint
shop that he still owns on South A St. in Santa Rosa. In addition,
Darlene and Arnold had started a family with young sons Eric
and Cameron. Trying to balance time for family, business, and
racing just became unmanageable and Arnold stepped back from
the sport for two years. Bobby Neal bought the Woody car and
went racing with Jesse Perkins and the Cow Palace Shell gang.
The top fuel dragster actually started as an AA/GD;
this was how it looked in its yellow trim before its make over
Bill Dewey, Bobby Neal, and Arnold Birky with the
The Birky-Neal "show-and-go" top fuel dragster
actually won the Sweepstakes Award at the Santa Rosa Auto Show.
Bobby checking out his office.
in Bobby; Fremont raceway-1971.
The 2nd Northwind
getting some air in Arnold's backyard.
The first time out with Northwind II; a non-qualifying
effort at the '72 Winternationals.
engine in the Northwind; a 6.87 ¾ track pass at the Northern
Nationals-Fremont, March 1972.
In 1974, Arnold
briefly teamed up with Dan Wilkison; this was a Pro Comp Eliminator
car driven by Jim Murphy; BBC with quad turbos!
The quad turbo on the
return road at Sacramento Raceway.
This guy was so potent the NHRA
did not know what to do with it; so, they banned it from Pro
Arnold was naïve enough
to think that he had gotten the drag racing bug out of his system.
OK, he was clean for two years, but when asked to help out friend
Dave Zappatini with his ex-Marc Denakas top fuel dragster, Arnold
succumbed, oh, so quickly. This new love was a Frank Huszar RCS
car and an exact twin of the one Mitch Danekas had crashed at
the Pomona Winternationals. Arnold purchased the car and all
of Dave's motors, and in 1976, returned to top fuel with Bobby
Neal in the seat. Although campaigned mainly on the West Coast,
Arnold and Bobby did take the car to Indy in 1976.
This combination existed for
about two years before the team took their next evolutionary
step: replace the Donovan block and parts for a motor on the
late model hemi design.
Bobby appeared to be trying to wipe something off
his face; yet the butterflies on the injectors remained wide
Fans will never again get this close to the action.
The entire sensation and thrill of drag racing has been compromised
by seating the viewers far from the action.
Ron Burch, who took this shot of Bobby's burn out,
was the track photographer at Sacramento Raceway for many years.
Birky took a shot at the US Nationals but failed
to qualify in 1976.
The Allen-Attebury Connection
In late 1977, the Arnold &
Darlene Birky car and all the Donovan parts were sold. Former
Top Fuel World Champ Jeb Allen, a fellow Santa Rosa resident,
had his Praying Mantis for sale. Convinced that the Donovan-equipped
cars were no longer competitive with the bigger and more powerful
late model hemi alloy blocks, Arnold bought Jeb's dragster. Bobby
Neal, still driving for Jesse Perkins and the Serramonte Shell
team from South San Francisco, was not available, so the responsibility
initially fell on Les Allen's shoulders (Jeb's older brother).
Later, Neil Leffler took over, and finally, Joe Ortega. The Birky
Bunch ran all the big West Coast events like the PDA at OCIR
and the Bakersfield March Meet. With talent like Darrell Buehl
(Buehl Racing Engines) calling the tuning shots, they always
made the show. In 1980, Joe Ortega left to drive for Mike James
and a new team had to be assembled--a partnership with ex-funny
car racer Jim Murphy and Wendell Trappe. Birky-Murphy-Trappe
would turn out to be the most successful of all of Arnold's many
teams. This was the first time he truly had the resources (cash
and parts) to compete with the other racers at parity. For the
next three years they did a lot of racing and a lot of winning
including the Nitro Championships at OCIR, the Golden State Feature
at Sears Point, and numerous AHRA and NHRA regional races.
After five years of virtual non-stop
racing, Arnold finally retired Attebury car #1. He did not have
to look far to find a replacement. Jeb Allen had decided to get
out of drag racing and had his entire "English Leather"
operation for up sale. From 1984 through 1988, this Birky Bunch
top fuel dragster competed in all the big West Coast events and
even went to Indy in 1985. Although they did not qualify, it
was a memorable event for the Santa Rosans. They ended up as
#1 alternate with an admirable (and somewhat wild) 5.86-237.71.
With Bobby Neal at the controls and the engine spitting oil on
the slicks, it took all of Bobby's considerable driving skills
to keep the car out of the other lane and not collide with a
short-shifting Eddie Hill.
Although the car never won a
big event, it won its fair share of rounds at tracks like Bakersfield,
OCIR, and Los Angeles County Raceway. Yes, Palmdale; in 1984,
the Birky Bunch and Arly Langlo brought nitro back to the desert
strip for the first time in almost 20 years. Not only did the
Birky Bunch win the match race, but they set a new track record
at 6.02-233 mph; not bad for a less than ideally groomed track
at 2900 ft.
Neil Leffler, Joe Ortega, and Jim Murphy all took
a turn driving the #1 Attebury car;
wheels up launch shot with Joe in the seat.
Right to left: horsepower guru Darrell Buehl; Arnold;
Doug Kerhulas; and, Doug's female friend.
Joe Ortega way out on Bruce Walker in the R. J. Trotter
car at Ontario.
Jim Murphy on the outrun at Fremont raceway; the
unmistakable back drop to this track was the sand and gravel
company's huge conveyor belt.
Birky-Murphy-Trapp had the best won/lost record of
all of Arnold's top fuel dragsters; qualifying pass at the '82
When B-M-T was put together, every partner brought
a valuable racing asset to the team; Roland Leong was also an
Jim Murphy's considerable resume included drag boats
and nitro funny cars; another reason for this team's success.
Arnold kept the yellow exterior on the 2nd Attebury
(Allen) car during its first year of racing-1984.
Some subtle changes for 1985 -- new paint scheme
and new nose piece; qualifying run at Indy.
Qualifying at the 1986 World Finals; Pomona, California.
"Houston, we have lift off"; this dazzling
petard is ranked no.2 on David Letterman's list of top 10 engine
explosions; 1987 World Finals, Pomona, California.
What happens when one drops the speed on the blower
but not the fuel pumps. It worked well at the shop and in the
pits, but a puddle of fuel formed in the manifold and the engine
"hydrauliqued" itself to death.
Qualifying for the March Meet; Bakersfield, 1988
(the last of the "old" March Meets);
note: Bobby Baldwin waiting his turn in front of the tower.
The End of an Era
By the early 1990s, racing a
top fuel dragster in the NHRA had become so expensive, only teams
backed by corporate cash had a reasonable chance to win. The
era of the family or independently funded top fuel racer was
just about a thing of the past. The irony of this situation was
the fact that only now did Arnold finally have the resources
to field a brand new race car and not purchase one second hand.
He commissioned Rob Sterling to build him a new chassis, and
then put together what would be his last contemporary top fuel
dragster. The Birky Bunch rear engine top fuel dragster competed
in selected NHRA events, bought in shows, and match races through
1995. The car had a best of 5.20, but with the "pros"
running 4.7s, it was getting difficult just to get into the show
and grab the qualifying money. For instance, at the 1995 NHRA
national event at Sears Point, the field ranged from Blaine Johnson's
low of 4.84 to Shelly Anderson's bump at 5.07. The competitors
that failed to qualify were all independents--Butch Blair, Rod
Fuller, and the Birky Bunch. At the end of the year, Arnold sold
the dragster to long time friend, Dave Zappatini and made the
move back to front engine dragsters.
Spokane Raceway for the AHRA race; 1994.
A peaceful, almost serene shot of the Birky Bunch
dragster at Los Angeles County Raceway
Qualifying at the 1995 Winternationals against Mike
Dunn in the Gwynn car (not seen).
The decade of the '90s introduced
a new yet familiar type of nitro racing: the nostalgia top fuel
dragster. Probably, the word "re-introduce" would better
describe what happened with nitro racing starting in the early
1990s.With the engine once again placed in the front of the driver,
this hybrid was reminiscent of the last evolution of top fuel
dragsters from the late 1960s and early 1970s. From its modest
start at reunions and get togethers, nostalgia drag racing quickly
gained a lot of enthusiasts. Some of the same drag racers, whose
top fuel dragsters had graced a cover of Drag News or Drag Sport
Illustrated years ago, were now building a contemporary version
of the front engine dragster. With upgraded safety specifications
coupled with restrictions on the engine, fuel pump, and tire
size, the nostalgia top fuel racer did not need a seven digit
budget to build, maintain, and race a top fuel dragster. Though
not cheap, it was now possible for the comfortably funded top
fuel hobbyist to continue drag racing. They even had their own
organization: The Vintage Racing Association. By the end of the
decade, the popularity of nostalgia drag racing had really taken
off. At tracks like Bakersfield, Boise, and Pomona, fans filled
the stands to see not only top fuel dragsters, but funny cars,
fuel altered roadsters, coupes and sedans.
And, so it was with Arnold and
his Birky Bunch. Despite the generosity of friends and manufacturers,
he could no longer continue racing in the NHRA series, not even
on a part-time basis. When John Eirich, owner of the Ground Zero
nostalgia top fuel dragster, suggested he join the nostalgia
ranks and compete in the Goodguys series, Arnold didn't think
twice. Drag racing was something he had done since a teenager
and he was not ready to retire. He contacted Rob Sterling to
build him a new chassis and he started making plans to start
a new chapter in his drag racing career. Forsaking the popular
Donovan hemi block, this time Arnold decided to use a 427 cid
Chevy for the dragster's power plant. Arnold joined the circuit
in 1996; he has been running the same car ever since. For the
first four years, veteran Bobby Neal handled all the driving
duties. But, sensing it was time to retire, Bobby reluctantly
told Arnold that he would need to find a new driver. Mark Malde,
who had crewed for Arnold for over 25 years, enthusiastically
jumped at the opportunity. The change in drivers from Bobby to
Mark turned out to be a smooth transition for the team. Mark
took to driving the Birky Bunch dragster with the same aplomb
and skill as he had shown all the years as a mechanic crewing
on the dragster; he has been the only driver since 2000.
The nostalgia top fuel dragster
has been moderately successful earning several runner ups and
the 2005 Governor's Cup Championship at Sacramento Raceway. But,
by far the highlight, was running a 5.97 at the 2006 CHRR, the
team's first venture in the the rarified zone of five second
runs. With the Goodguys no longer sanctioning nostalgia top fuel
racing on the West Coast, the All American Fuel Dragster Association
has stepped in and organized series of its own.
When not at the drag strip, one
can find Arnold and his crew every Saturday in the shop behind
his house on Hunter Lane working on the dragster. Walking into
this shop is like stepping back forty years in time; to a period
when the drag racer was more than just a driver or an engine
builder. He was also an inventor, a welder, a fabricator, and
a painter all rolled into one. It's all here: the clutch and
flywheel grinders, the homemade flow bench, and a huge stockpile
of various metals for fabricating parts. The shop is such a graphic
reminder of how drag racing used to be before the era of huge
haulers, salaried employees, and state-of-art machine shops located
in industrial parks, one might even find an "old garage
floor motor", forgotten, lying alone over in some dark corner.
But for the old school do-it-yourself drag racer like Arnold
Birky, he would not have it any other way.
2005 Governor's Cup at Sacramento Raceway.
Mark Malde took over for Bobby Neal starting in 2000;
he is only the 5th driver Arnold has ever used in over 37 years
of racing top fuel dragsters.
The launch on the team's historic 5.97 run-2006 CHRR.
Rob Sterling took special measures to style this
chassis just the way Arnold wanted it;
so the driver had a clean view over the injector hat
if I wanted to quit, which I don't,
it would be really tough".
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