A Reprint: Originally appeared in DRAG WORLD September 17, 1971
During a man’s life he presents many faces to different people for reasons of their relationship, mood, and/or preference! The “make-up” of these faces or personalities, as they can more accurately be called, may vary from the socially acceptable to the in- verse. Yet, in a real sense, each is a facet of the complex individual. No man is so simple that he has only one mood or even one image to the people surrounding him.
Such is the case when trying to write about Dick Harrell known to thousands as MR. CHEVROLET! Dick died last weekend at the wheel of his popular Camaro Funny Car. The simple facts are that a front tire caused the tragic accident and the car ripped through a guardrail and came to rest against a light pole. But these simple facts do not tell you the whole story and they certainly fail to express what this loss means to Dick’s wife and family, to his many friends and competitors, or what it means to a little boy in a crippled children’s hospital in New York where Dick took the time to visit and say hello to some youngsters that needed help. People ever touched by the magic of Dick Harrell will feel the loss in their own unique way, and by the same token we all will share in the pain to some degree!
The family Dick left behind will surely bear the burnt of the pain including Elaine, the childhood sweetheart he married years ago and his two daughters, Valerie and Kim. To them Dick was a husband and father, not just one of DRAG RACING’S SUPER STARS. They knew Dick as a human being first and a professional race driver second. As much as it may seem improper, Dick Harrell was a human being with all of the strengths and weaknesses that are common to everyone! Elaine and the girls knew all of Dick’s and loved him for them, as they should. Many of you will say I should only talk about Dick Harrell in terms of his outstanding qualities but that would be an injustice to a great man of our sport who above all was a fine human being.
The one person that knew Dick Harrell better than the rest of us in Drag Racing was Charles Therwanger, now a driver of his own Funny Car, but the one-time mechanic and driver for Dick Harrell when nobody in the nation could equal his performance. Charles, like Dick’s family, knew the quiet and personable man but he also knew the driving, aggressive competitor beneath the crash helmet and facemask. He saw Dick in moods ranging from quiet contentment to utter rage and love him for his entire self, not just the “fact” the public came to know! To Charles the magic of Dick Harrell was more than just a driver or mechanic -- it was the soft charm and smoothness that covered a fierce desire to win that would not be stilled! In his years with Dick he learned a great deal about racing and their friendship never ended after they parted company over a year ago!
Another “face” of Dick Harrell was known well by Jim Tice, president of the AMERICAN HOT ROD ASSOCIATION, and long time personal friend of Dick’s. The man Jim knew was the soft-spoken driver of a feared Funny Car that could draw thousands of spectators to his tracks each and every time he appeared. He was the man that Jim could count on to be there on Friday of big race weekend for interviews with the press and to do a few burnouts for the local reporters. He was the man Jim counted on to set the standard of performance and professionalism for the other drivers! When Dick Harrell was contracted to race at one of the major AHRA events, Jim could rest assured that a super-neat crew and car would be on hand and the contract would be fulfilled to the letter! Yet, it wasn't’t any written contract that joined these men, it was a verbal agreement that never needed to be reduced to writing. Jim Tice paid “MR. CHEVROLET” top dollar to race and Dick gave him his monies worth at all times.
The admiration and loyalty between these two giants of Drag Racing ran deep, yet when one had a beef with the other, few words were spared between them. It was simply two men that respected each other speaking their piece and getting the job done without unnecessary wasted effort. Yet another face of Dick Harrell was seen by his sponsors whether it was across a desk during contract talks or at the track. Dick was a hard man to deal with for prospective sponsors that didn't’t understand his magic with fans and high performance buffs. Dick knew exactly what it meant for him to endorse a product and he could tell his sponsors how many prospective buyers he could produce through his efforts. He produced what he said he could and expected to be paid a fair price for his work. This is as it should be, especially when you realize that Dick wouldn’t endorse any product that he didn’t believe in and use himself.
As Bud Lyons of Quaker State, Don Genrich of Poweready Ignition, Jack Duffy of Hurst, and many others and they will tell you that the money they paid Dick Harrell was a “GOLD-PLATED” investment. Now consider the “PROFESSIONALISM” of the entire DICK HARRELL organization and you will see the little things that Dick did for his sponsors that other drivers usually failed to remember! Each and every spectator coming into the pits could walk by Dick’s van and receive an autographed color picture of his car with all of his sponsors listed on the back. He also had decals available and most of all he offered his years of experience FREE to many aspiring youngsters that asked his advice concerning equipment choice and racing suggestions! This too was Dick Harrell!!
Now you may begin to realize just how complex a person Dick was and we still haven’t covered the three facets of his personality that were most publicized. Dick Harrell, Goodwill Ambassador of DRAG RACING, Dick Harrell, the Businessman, and Dick Harrell, the Man IN The Public Eye! These will take some explanation so please bear with me as I try to capture in words the “CHARISMA” that was the Dick Harrell!! As Drag Racing grew from its infancy and became semi-professional during the mid-sixties, Dick became a TOURING PROFESSIONAL, racing on tracks from coast-to-coast. You may think that this is a thrilling way of life but in the early days it was one of the hardest ways imaginable to make a living. It took a real love of the sport to race three and four days a week at tracks that many times were barely paved. But it was the barnstorming days on the road that earned Dick his fantastic following of loyal fans.
When Dick arrived with his early Chevelle and Chevy- II’s, the fans came out of the woodwork to see him make full quarter mile passes with the wheels in the air at 140 and 150 mph. Dick literally “SHIFTED” his way into the hearts of thousands and earned Drag Racing the right to be called a professional sport while he was at it. That’s right, Dick, at all times, impressed upon reporters and fans alike that Drag Racing was for everybody and expressly developed to eliminate STREET RACING. Dick was a PRO and many young men took his warning to heart. They quit racing on the streets, which endangered their own lives and the lives of others. At the same time Dick was learning about other aspects of “PROFESSIONALISM”, he developed the familiar “DICK HARRELL INSIGNIA” painted on the sides of all cars racing under his banner and designed formal uniforms plus all of the other little things we came to expect from him. You see Dick was an innovator in his own right in ways that seemed insignificant at first but were copied quickly by others. From the give-away photos already discussed to the impressive Tractor / Trailer of 1970, Dick Harrell developed and refine the words, DRAG RACING PROFESSIONAL, to a degree that earned him the respect of racing magazines and the “straight-press” throughout the nation. He worked full time a t representing the sport he loved and repaid his debt to it by being an example of its true maturity. Yes, Dick understood what responsibility he incurred as his fame grew. It was simple–he made a fine living at professional Drag Racing–and to insure its continuation he did his part as its Number One Ambassador.
Next, we must consider Dick Harrell, ‘THE BUSINESSMAN”, a unique aspect of the man that deserves special recognition. As Dick made the rounds of the racetracks across the country, he sensed a desire in High Performance buffs that couldn’t be met by any of the automotive manufacturers. The “KIDS”, young and old alike, wanted big engined, small cars and they were not being built by Detroit. His answer was simple, build his own and market them through a chain of dealers throughout the nation. Thus, the Dick Harrell “SUPER CARS” were born, first through a dealership in Chicago, and finally directly a Dick’s own “MINI-FACTORY” in his new home, Kansas City.
During the late 60's these cars became legend as the fastest cars available in the country and once again Dick Harrell’s fame grew. These ‘SUPER” Camaros, Chevy II’s, and Chevelle’s were on the streets of every major city and each proudly carried the Dick Harrell “EMBLEM” on their fenders. When Dick opened his first “PERFORMANCE CENTER” in 1968, it became “THE SHOP” for tune-ups and high performance work of all types. It not only appealed to those interested in Drag Racing but to many customers that simply trusted Dick’s reputation and wanted only the best service for their “GROCERY GETTER”. The shop was equipped with the latest in diagnostic equipment and some of the nation’s top racing mechanics were trained under his personal tutorage. Charles Therwanger, Jim Guthrie, and Guy Tipton worked for Dick at one time or another and learned their trade well enough to demand TOP dollar for their services. Dick also ventured into other fields including a product line of “MR. CHEVROLET” GOODIES sold nationally and his own Model Car Kit produced by MPC Corporation. Dick was far-sighted when it came to his own specialty, High Performance Marketing, and he was smart enough to capitalize on it. Dick could have become a wealthy man if he devoted his full efforts to business but he had one weakness, Drag Racing! Because of this, his true business potential was probably never realized.
The last “face” of Dick Harrell to be considered is the “PUBLIC IMAGE” he created and what he really meant to thousands of people. It consisted of the warm smile that greeted everyone he encountered at the track and on the street. It was the friendly word of encouragement for fans and competitors alike and the many visits he made to hospitals and boys clubs fulfilling the responsibility he received as the price of fame. The DICK HARRELL the public knew was just as REAL as the Dick Harrell his daughters knew as their father, but at the same time was another personality. Believe me when I say it wasn’t “PHONEY” or just an act, it was the Dick Harrell that the public had created. Our nation has always been prone to hero-worshiping and to most of us our HEROES are a necessary part of life. Sure we consider them above the normal frailties of plain everyday people; yet, in our hearts we know heroes are made of the same parts and chemicals as ourselves. It is natural, therefore, that a person with the sensitivity and understanding possessed by Dick would become what his fans desired him to be.
Of the many tasks that faced Dick during his lifetime, living up to the HIGH STANDARDS of his fans was probably the hardest. Constantly considering what is expected of you by others leaves little time for self-indulgence and Dick paid the full price for his fame. Every year he came to the strip with a new fleet of cars. He laid his reputation on the line each time he raced and he never failed to perform as expected. No one can win every race; but over a period of years, encompassing the evolution of the Funny Car from a stock-bodied vehicle to the sophisticated cars of today, he compiled a win-lose record that may never be equaled! Dick even entered a full season of competition knowing he couldn’t win any big meets when he stuck with “CHEVROLET” power in 1970 simply because he felt his fans expected him to remain loyal. Finally in 1971 Dick made the switch to “HEMI” Power and his fans supported him saying, “He had no choice and he’s still Mr. Chevrolet”! Such was the relationship Dick had with his public. He did everything in his power to stick by them and they responded with faith that he was right.
Dick had fans from all walks of life. At a recent race Dick was introduced to a black youngster from a correctional institution who had earned the right to come to the race by holding the highest scholastic average in the school for a month. The youth’s fondest wish was to meet Dick Harrell and to see the famous “MR. CHEVROLET” Camaro in action. He received far more than just a handshake. Dick arranged for the youth to work on his pit crew throughout the race and he put the boy to work just like a regular crew member. Needless to say, it must have been the high point in the troubled life of the youngster but to Dick it was his way of showing that people do care. In honesty, it was just another example of the Dick Harrell the public came to expect. Sometimes we expect far too much from our HEROES, but Dick never complained.
I hope this “EULOGY” to Dick Harrell has in some way brought to you a more complete understanding of the MAN as a whole and not just one of his many faces. I haven’t tried to glorify him beyond accomplishments, nor have I tried to make him less a hero to those that idolized him. I simply have tried to help you understand Dick as a human being, not just a “SUPER-STAR”. Dick Harrell devoted most of his 39 years to drag racing and out of respect for Dick and what he accomplished, I devote these few words, ”THERE WILL NEVER BE ANOTHER “MR. CHEVROLET”.
Dick Harrell is a registered trademark and service mark of Valerie Harrell, her subsidiaries and affiliates, which may appear in Dick Harrell web sites: 1969 ©®