Dial the clock back to September 3, 2004. Gary Densham sat at Indianapolis, at the 50th edition of U.S. Nationals, marveling not that he had Funny Car’s provisional No. 1 qualifying spot, but that NHRA drag racing still existed.
“I clearly remember the 25th anniversary of this race, and at that point I had never been east of Denver. I did all my racing on the West Coast,” the Bellflower, Calif., resident said. “But I thought I’d better go to Indy because I was sure they’d be getting rid of drag racing real soon. I figured people would get tired of these stinky, loud hot rods. Now we’re here for the 50th anniversary and I’m No. 1, at least for now. Our sport didn’t dry up and blow away after all.”
No, it didn’t. And at the recent 53rd Winternationals, in Densham’s backyard, at Pomona, Calif., he sat there again as tentative No. 1 qualifier in Funny Car. Ironically, so much has changed for Densham, yet so much remains the same.
Densham always had been the classic under-budget underdog, poster child for perseverance, a man winless for the first 243 races of his NHRA career, the shop teacher at Gahr High School in the Los Angeles suburb of Cerritos whose drag racing education came from the School of Hard Knocks.
In the late 1990s, for example, he left his Pontiac at a friend’s shop in Georgia to fix the body damaged at the Richmond race. While he was at a convention at Reno, Nev., the car accidentally was torched. That cost him more than $60,000, nearly two years’ salary if he were still teaching. “I’ve had fires before but never when I was 3,000 miles away,” he said.
Densham, on his own, founded an NHRA Career Day program that the NHRA commandeered and called the Youth & Education Services program. It shows students the wide-ranging skills that make the drag-racing industry work. But Ambassador Densham’s trailer was stolen in Sacramento, with all his expensive equipment inside.
However, Densham got a huge break when longtime admirer John Force hired him to drive one of his Funny Cars, and Densham won eight races. One was that 2004 U.S. Nationals and the Skoal Showdown bonus race for a $250,000 payout.
The now-66-year-old Densham, whose first Funny Car was a 1970 Ford Pinto and who still jokes that his first drag-racing rivals were Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, got steamrolled by the youth movement he had groomed. He stepped aside at the end of 2004 to make room for Robert Hight. And Densham hasn’t won an event since.
I am thrilled to be driving a car. But it lasts for only five seconds. If that’s all there was to it, it wouldn’t be worth all the aggravation.
(Although he said, “Corporate America needs to remember that Baby Boomers like John and me continue to drive the economy,” he did say, “I love Robert. If anything takes the sting out of it [no longer driving for Force], that’s it.”)
Densham was Cinderella at the Nitro Ball. The clock struck midnight nine years ago, but he has continued to enjoy the dance, proud of his rags-to-riches-to-rags again story, for “We have as good a chance of winning as anybody.”
People are what makes him keep trying.
“I am thrilled to be driving a car. But it lasts for only five seconds,” Densham said. “If that’s all there was to it, it wouldn’t be worth all the aggravation.”
No, but he has Greg Amaral, who has morphed from his Gahr High standout student to his trusted crew chief. He has, he said, “85 percent of the group that I did have when I was racing fulltime.” They include Ed and Melissa Boytim and Gary Seaward.
“I feel like I’ve got the best team in drag racing. They do more with less than anybody out here. I think we prove that most times we come out here,” Densham said. “I wouldn’t trade them for anybody out there. What Greg Amaral’s able to do and my whole team, for the budget that we have to race on, I feel really, really proud about all of that.
“The downside is that they all live out of town: Montana, Seattle, Carson City . . . The closest live in Temecula [Calif.], and I’m lucky to get ‘em one Saturday a month,” he said. “It all falls on me to be able to maintain and build and get everything ready, from changing oil and generators and trucks and building cars and doing all that.
“And that’s not a complaint,” Densham said. “If I didn’t have all that to do, getting up at 6:30 and working till it’s dark on that thing, I’d have to go get a job as a Wal-Mart greeter or something. I’d go crazy. So I love it, but it’s a lot of work.”
I feel like I’ve got the best team in drag racing. They do more with less than anybody out here. I think we prove that most times we come out here.
He made extra work for the team Opening Day, running into the sand trap and ruining his new, patriotic-themed body. “It’s kind of a bummer. Being a one-man band, you spend all winter trying to make a nice, shiny car so you can come out here and be proud of it and then go out and ruin it the first run. At least it was a good run,” he said, finding the positive.
And Densham has a mutual love for the fans.
“We have the greatest fans in the whole world in drag racing. Unfortunately I don’t hang around with all the guys who have all the money. I’ve got hundreds of fans who come by and say, ‘I’d really like to sponsor you and help you. If I ever win the lottery, I’ll sponsor your car!’ ” His standard response is “Do you ever buy a ticket? Can’t win if you don’t buy a ticket!’ “
Densham loves the interaction with the crowds. Years ago, he won on the road course at Willow Springs International Raceway in Rosamond, Calif. “I beat up the Porsches that day,” he said, “and I looked up and there were 500 fans there, and they weren’t allowed to come over and celebrate with us.” He said enjoying the people who help pay his bills is something he especially likes about NHRA.
He likes that and the friends he has made throughout the years, such as Paul Lee.
Lee drove Densham’s Dodge Charger at the final two races of last season, and Densham said the McLeod Clutches owner and veteran driver “saved our bacon by coming to the deal. He helped us financially by doing that. And to be honest with you, if we hadn’t made that decision, allow him to drive the last two races, we probably wouldn’t have been able to afford to be [at the 2013 season opener]. Did I miss driving it at Vegas and the Finals? Yeah, I did — tremendously. But it was just a financial decision.”
He said parts wear out and racing has costs upon costs: “Over the winter, truck insurance is due, truck registration is due, and you have to buy over $3500 worth of stupid stickers just to recertify everything in your car — $3500 worth of dumb ol’ stickers you got to have.”
Densham said Lee “does a phenomenal job, and he didn’t hurt our team one little bit. He was nothing but an asset. I was proud to have him do it, and I think on the flip side of the coin, we gave him a pretty near perfect race car. He had a career-best of everything. So did we — and it just shows.
”We were able to buy a few new parts and pieces instead of patching together stuff that’s six, eight, 10 years old, like we’ve been doing. And it showed at the end of last year. It showed on that run right there,” he said of his career-best 4.053 seconds at 307.09 mph that gave him the No. 3 starting spot. “New stuff runs better. It’s just that simple.”
We have a whole lot of fun, and if we can go out there and make one of those high-dollar-life guys’ lives miserable once in awhile, well, we got something to chuckle about.
New parts do, but the experienced driver does, too.
“We’ve been very, very fortunate over the last five years to qualify at every race. And with the backing we get, we qualify and it’s a break-even deal. We have a whole lot of fun, and if we can go out there and make one of those high-dollar-life guys’ lives miserable once in awhile, well, we got something to chuckle about.”
He had something to marvel, if not chuckle, about at the Winternationals.
”I’m glad to see all the international guys out here. We’ve got some great overseas competitors who are here and who have been for the last 30 years. I’ve always said there’s three things that make people really interested in something: (1) If there’s a whole bunch of people, it must be really important and I’ve got to go, (2) how much money we’re winning — unfortunately we can’t advertise that, because it ain’t near enough, and (3) how far did people come to participate,” he said.
Densham came from Bellflower, Calif., just on the other end of his shoestring. But in terms of all he has been through, maybe no one has come farther than Gary Densham.