John Mazmanian, 80, Early Drag Racer
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Big John Mazmanian, a legendary racer and car builder prominent during the “gasser wars” era of Southern California drag racing, died July 21 at 80, at a hospital in Mission Viejo, Calif.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Mazmanian’s name was practically a household word throughout Southern California, thanks to nonstop radio advertising promoting the “gasser” and “funny car” competitions that were a fixture every weekend at the region’s drag strips.
In “Billy The Mountain,” a song filled with in-joke references to Southern California, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention refer to a Mazmanian funny car competition at the Irwindale Speedway. Although best known in Southern California, Mazmanian also raced throughout the country. He was inducted into the National Hot Road Association’s Hall of Fame in 1989.
The racer, who at 6-feet-5 towered over most of his fellow drivers, got his start building cars before he was old enough to drive them, rebuilding a 1932 Ford into a “highboy roadster” for an auto shop class when he was 14.
“It just got into his blood after that,” said his son, Vic Mazmanian. “He just loved building cars and he loved racing.”
Soon he was building or customizing other cars, painting them his trademark candy apple red and racing them at tracks around the country.
He started with “gassers,” customized versions of street-legal cars that were powered by gasoline. In the 1960s, he moved up to “funny cars,” more powerful automobiles powered by a potent mixture that includes nitroglycerine and whose large back tires emit a huge cloud of burned rubber smoke at the beginning of a drag race.
“We were breaking the 200 mile per hour barrier back then, and under 6 seconds, which was very fast for that time,” his son recalled.
Mazmanian retired from racing in 1972, but remained a popular figure on the funny car circuit, signing autographs and letting people see his vintage cars.