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DONER RETURNS TO HIS HOME OF PROMOTING FUEL FUNNY CARS IN SEATTLE
by Bobby Bennett "Competition Plus"
Fri, 2017-07-07 15:45
Dyan Lower Photo via Facebook
Five-decade Funny Car veteran Gary Densham remembers the time when race promoter Bill Doner had a heavy hand in Funny Car racing. "You had to race for Bill Doner; at one time he owned the entire west coast," Densham recalled in an episode of Legends: The Series. "If you wanted to race Orange County, Fremont, Portland and Seattle. If you didn't race with Doner, you didn't race. It's just that simple." Doner rose to legendary status with his famous, and sometimes off the wall promotions, which made him quite the cult hero starting in the Seattle drag racing scene before he headed to Southern California. Then Doner, in a moment of not well thought out haste, left drag racing to pursue a career in fishing at the height of his career. In what could be considered in some circles to be a gathering of the cosmic forces, Doner has come home to do what he once knew as well as the back of his hand.
Doner, 78, will return to the former Seattle International Raceway, now renamed Pacific Raceways, to promote a Nostalgia Funny Car race. "I’m cautiously optimistic, and at the same time, I’m a bit nervous about it," Doner admitted. "Have I got a lot of memories here? Yeah." The return to Seattle is not Doner's first race back into the promotions world, but it's his first bonafide return to Seattle since the 1970s. "I guess I forgot how iffy the weather can be in the Pacific Northwest until I went over and we ran that race in Spokane last month," Doner admitted. "I worried about it all the way up there, all the time I was there, and it rained all around us. We got the race in, we were able to run it, but it rained all around us." Doner, who often ended up on Mother Nature's bad side in the early days, has apparently learned time heals all wounds and for both days of Friday and Saturday's UNFC Invitational event the forecast looks picture perfect. Doner, who promotes the United Nostalgia Funny Car group, has a group of 12 classic Funny Cars ready to rock the house.
Still, until the event is in the books, Doner's not keen on raising his hands in celebration. "I guess as old as I am I haven’t shaken those old fears that were there, and everything about it worries me," Doner said. "It’s been a while since I’ve been like that." Back in the day, even if the skies opened up and everything in the universe fell through it, Doner could still count on three-mile long lines, double lanes, waiting to get inside the track. Doner is quick to point out those days for which his legend was built on didn't come easy, and not without a bit of wrangling and flip-flopping cash flow and credit lines. "In the beginning, I opened up that racetrack using my MasterCard to get the starting change because we didn’t have any money," Doner explained. "If the rain had not let up, I don’t know what I would have done." Doner, the architect of the popular 32 and then 64 Funny Car events, as well as the Fox Hunts, said the times weren't always glamorous. "Can I remember those days? Of course," Doner said of the rough moments. "Can I remember the time when it was so dark and dreary and rainy that when I left the office, I couldn’t find my car, I just shut the light off and bumped into trees outside, it’s so dark and remote out there." Given a time machine, there's a part of Doner which would love to return to those events to see it from a different angle. "Those big races up in Seattle, the 64 Funny Cars, they were right on the cusp of riot conditions," Doner admitted. "You wouldn’t want to go back and do that. I was wrung out when they were over, just wrung out. I had nothing left in me. I mean they’d smash the fences down, they were all over the racetrack, so many people. "We probably should not have let that many people go in there. But in those days I didn’t think like that. I wouldn’t want to go back and be in that same spot again. It would be fun if I could sit up in a helicopter and look down at it and not have to run it. Having to run it, you know, you’ve got to deal with all the racers, do the commercials, announce the race, be in the tower. When it was over, I didn’t even get home until the next day. I was still out there, and there was no getting in and out. And yeah there wasn’t anything left of me. I couldn’t do that again."
Legendary drag racing promoter Bill Doner brings United Nitro Funny Cars
to Spokane County Raceway
Spokane, Wash. — It’s a homecoming of sorts for Bill Doner — 45 years removed. Doner brings his United Nitro Funny Car circuit to Spokane County Raceway Friday and Saturday, June 9-10, turning back the pages of history. Like it or not, the legendary drag racing promoter, who has also served in other marketing roles throughout his career, is always seemingly known for his 64-funny car extravaganzas from the 1970s. That golden time, in fact, immediately came to mind for Doner when he spoke about the tour of nostalgia race cars that will compete for a $32,000 purse in an eight-car elimination bracket Saturday. An expected 12 cars will qualify for spots beginning Friday night and continuing Saturday. “I go back all the way to Deer Park in 1972 – 45 years ago,” Doner said, referring to a National Hot Rod Association points meet staged at the old Deer Park Drag Strip. The race launched the career of a very notable individual. “It was the first-ever win for this kid named Gordie Bonin from Red Deer, Alberta,” Doner said of the future inductee into the Canadian Motorsports Hall of Fame in 2000. Bonin drove for Edmonton’s Ron Hodgeson in the Pacemaker car. A photo of the post race celebration shows the tower where Doner was blazing away on his portable typewriter for a story to appear in National Dragster. Nearly a half-century later, Hodgeson is back with a national-record setting nostalgia funny car with his son, Ryan driving. They come here after having won the prestigious March Meet at Bakersfield, Calif.Bucky Austin, the former Spokane Country Raceway operator in the first year of ownership by the county, brings a car driven by Bobby Cottrell. “They will be awfully tough to beat." An International Hot Rod Association competitor, Jason Rupert is in the field. Rupert’s dad, Frank, once was a notable name here as driver of the Pay ‘N Pak dragster owned by Dave Heerensperger of Spokane. Local driver Chris Davis will have his patched up funny car back on the track after crashing at the UNFC’s race in Boise. And another familiar name from the past — Twin Zeigler — will drive for Jim Boychuck from Edmonton. They won a race in Spokane in 2016. Doner, who retired to Lake Havasu, Ariz., returned to drag racing promotion two years ago at the urging of some of the oldtimers. The nostalgia class turn back the pages of history to when funny cars first burst on the scene. Once a program that raced at numerous NHRA race tracks, the nostalgia cars had drifted into the shadows, Doner said. “They got lost in the shuffle because NHRA has a lot bigger fish to fry,” Doner said. While they may have the look dating back 40 years, “These cars run really good,” Doner said. “(The) side-by-side racing is terrific.
His legendary 64-funny car races were not always extravaganzas. “We started with 16 in Seattle on a Friday night,” Doner said. That morphed into 32 and eventually became 64. “We had crowds I’ve never seen to this day,” he added. “We had every funny car on the face of the earth up there.
He ramped that up to 100 at the old Orange County Raceway in California. That never caught on. But “64 funny cars in Seattle, people still talk about that,” Doner said. Jim Rockstad, the longtime Northwest promoter who was Doner's protégé, said in a 2009 story in Competition Plus, "We had the largest crowd ever in SIR (Seattle International Raceway, now Pacific Raceways), at 26,000-plus, for the '79 edition of 64 Funny Cars." But Doner, who can call the most legendary names in drag racing — Don Prudhomme, John Force, Jerry Ruth, Ed McCulloch, Tom McEwen — his friends, also dabbled in other ventures.From drag racing he moved to vice-president of marketing at Caesars Palace where he promoted the famous 1987 middleweight title fight between Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvin Hagler, Competition Plus wrote. He was the Commissioner of Unlimited Hydroplanes in the 1990s.