Arnold Birky Story

"…..I love the sound of the motors…..the power of the cars….."





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……the 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 Napa Register.


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 School, Alaska.




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 (1959).

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 fuel dragsters.

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!




Junior Fuel

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 mph.


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 car".


The Runaway after being lengthened to 120" by Arnold.


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, 1969.




Deliverance-Top Fuel

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 to Northwind.



Bill Dewey, Bobby Neal, and Arnold Birky with the Northwind.


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.


Arnold strapping 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.


John Anderson's 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 Comp.




Nitro Redux

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 open-Sacramento Raceway.


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 Winternationals.


When B-M-T was put together, every partner brought a valuable racing asset to the team; Roland Leong was also an advisor.


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).




Nostalgia Notes

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".


Note: Due to the ever increasing costs, especially the ones mandated by new NHRA rules, forced Arnold to retire the car in 2011.




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