John Mazmanian lived up to his nickname

Updated: August 14, 2006, 1:02 AM ET
By Bill Stephens | Special to ESPN.com

In an era when every drag racer worth his salt bore a nickname, "Big John" Mazmanian was blessed with exactly the right one.

When he passed away on July 21st after a long battle with leukemia at the age of 80, the drag racing world responded with grief, only to be quickly followed by the recounting of the colorful memories of his racing exploits throughout the 1960's and '70's which his many fans now share.

The NHRA was a dramatically different racing venue in those days. Big money sponsorships were still years in the future, television coverage of national events (what few there were) was only a dream, and the drag racing spotlight was commanded by the Top Fuel and Top Gas Dragster categories. Plus, the storm of frenetic factory-backed Super Stock and Factory-Experimental crowd-pleasers was riding the wave of the Horsepower Wars in Detroit with those impudent creations soon leading to the Funny Car class

It's during that formative period that the supercharged, gasoline-burning, full-fendered machines which raced in the A and B/Gas Supercharged categories -- affectionately referred to as "gassers"-- earned their own fervent and feverish following.

They were predominantly based on the 1941 Willys business coupe, but several other vintage makes and models also populated this wild bunch. These were cars that blasted from the starting line with their noses in the air and the front wheels only making incidental contact with the ground for the entire quarter-mile. Every fan would spring to their feet as these darty, dangerously skittish racecars dueled side by side on dragstrips which, many times, offered track surfaces and safety measures far inferior to the ones we see today.

The gassers embodied the spiritual essence of what drag racing was all about and it is a testament to their popularity that such stars as K.S. Pittman, "Ohio" George Montgomery, Stone-Woods & Cook, and a host of others shone as brightly as the racers who competed in the nitro and factory-campaigned classes.

Without question, one of the very best known A/Gas Supercharged entries in the country was the Kandy Apple Red Willys of Mazmanian with driver "Bones" Balough behind the wheel. It was as much a show car as a racecar with brilliant crimson paint complementing the polished wheels, blower and injector scoop, with immaculate detailing throughout. So exceptional was Mazmanian's workmanship that the Willys was the subject of uncountable pictorial spreads in literally every major hot rodding periodical in America.

Toymaker Revell offered a scale model of Mazmanian's legendary coupe and it may have been the most widely-built kit in Revell's lineup for years. Although Mazmanian fielded a string of other equally fastidiously prepared automobiles throughout his career, his Willys is clearly the car he will always be most closely associated with.

Mazmanian's Willys was also a winner on the track and its drag racing victories delighted gasser fans who turned out in big numbers whenever an event schedule called for the appearance of those fat-fendered, muscle-bound hard cases. You could always count on a great show.

And that's precisely what "Big John" Mazmanian sought to provide throughout his outstanding racing career. Perhaps the sport of drag racing has lost some of that old-school showmanship that was once one of the essential ingredients of quarter-mile combat, and that may be why the innumerable fans of this all-time great are mourning his loss so deeply and profoundly.

"Big John" was a gas.

Bill Stephens covers NHRA for ESPN.com.