~ Byron's Gasser Madness! ~
~ Rest in Peace ~
~ Pat Foster ~
Driver, Builder and Tuner Pat Foster Passes
A personal reflection on the life and legend of drag racer, builder and tuner Pat Foster who passed away March 27th.
writer: Jim Hill
Rarely in life do you have the good fortune to meet an individual who's well-known in his field yet wonderfully accessible, down-to-earth and just plain enjoyable to be around. Such was the case with Pat Foster.
Foster, who passed away from medical complications March 28, was indeed one of those types. Known as either "Uncle Patty" or simply "Foster", he never knew a stranger. Whether you knew Pat from "way back", or had just met him, the result was the same. Foster immediately made anyone feel as if they'd known him forever.
Foster's credentials in drag racing were second to none. He began his career in the sport like many other youngsters, hanging around, first watching and then helping a neighborhood racer work to prepare his hot rod for the weekend's race. In Foster's case it was the very talented and dedicated Ron Scrima who took the time to steer the young lad in the right direction. As the cliche goes, "the rest is history".
After serving as a tire-wiper and crewman, Foster got the nod to make a pass in Rocky Childs' Chevy powered AA/FD. He took to the job like a trout jumping into a mountain stream, and in his lifetime Foster claims he drove as many as 50 different race cars. He even compiled a lengthy list from memory, and said he was sure there were others he'd forgotten.
His driving skills were huge. He was equally at home in a front motor Top Fuel Dragster or the closed confines of a nitro Funny Car. He survived several spectacular crashes, one of which nearly cost him his life and required over a year of recovery time. Each time he bounced back, better and more competitive than ever.
My path's first crossing with Pat Foster came about somewhat indirectly in June, 1969. The race was the NHRA Springnationals, then hosted by the brand new Dallas International Motor Speedway. Foster had been working for Mickey Thompson as a car builder, fabricated and welded a major portion of Mickey's two new, Ford sponsored Mustang Mach 1 Funny Cars. Both were powered by blown Ford 427 SOHC motors and fueled by a generous Ford budget. The "Red Car" was driven by Foster, the "Blue Car" by Danny Ongais and either car very capable of Low ET and Top Speed performances.
On a qualifying run Foster collided with Gerry Schwartz, a relatively new Funny Car racer from Fort Wayne, Indiana. The well-liked Schwartz had assembled a Logghe chassis and a nitro burning big-block Chevy and was trying to make the Springnationals his breakthrough event. The car was once the Logghe "house car", mounting a Cougar body and powered by an SOHC Ford. Now with the Chevy it was called the "Ratty Cat". Although not as well known as the team of Foster and Ongais, Schwartz and his car had the ability to make the show and go rounds.
Conflicting stories have since been told, but the two cars collided in a frightful, screeching, grinding crash. Schwartz's Cougar did several violent rollovers atop the Armco guardrail with dust and debris raining across a wide area. I was on the pit side of the track and had walked over to the fence to watch the fuel cars make their runs. In the resulting melee the engine in Schwartz's high-gear only car went sky-high, exploding and tossing its clutch, flywheel, floater discs and other components. Pieces came slashing towards my location and as I tried to run to safety, I suddenly realized that the shrapnel was much faster than my feet. The pieces kissed and landed in the pits, striking several cars but injuring no one in the pit area.
Across the track the crash was as bad as it looked. Both cars were destroyed, the damage to Schwartz's car obviously the worst. Foster had injuries, but the innovative roll cage design of the new M/T car kept Foster from more serious peril. Schwartz's older car didn't have that advantage. The steel guardrail acted like a vicious buzz saw and Gerry Schwartz perished from massive head injuries sustained in the crash.
Many years later, after I had become friends with Pat, I told him I had been there, and I related my own recollections of that day and its aftermath. Foster's face grew dark. It was obvious that this was a memory maybe best left unvisited. After a few seconds to gather his composure he told me the whole story of that day and the run, and how much he regretted its results.
Pat Foster was like that, always quick to relate a humorous story from the old days or to explain what happened and how he handled another. When the story related to one of the tragedies in his life he never ducked the punch, but stepped up and told it the best way he knew, honestly and factually. It's impossible not to admire someone with that type of personal ethical character.
Foster's hands-on skills with a wrench, a welder or a butterfly steering wheel brought him many honors and success. He drove front-motor dragsters when these cars were the ultimate source of driver peril, either from crashes, smoking hot parts tossed back in a driver's face, or worse, when searing flames ate their way through the improved yet still inadequate firesuits, gloves and masks and torched raw flesh. He drove those cars - in many different configurations and conflagrations, for many different car owners - and survived to race another day.
In the early 1970's double-knit, synthetic fabrics were all the fashion rage. One young man, Barry Setzer, had Carolina mills working round the clock to meet the demand. His fortune was enormous, and he loved drag racing. Setzer assembled a top-flight Funny Car and an unlimited supply of blown, nitro burning, 426 Hemi engines from Ed Pink's power palace. Wisely, he hired Foster for the driving chores and for his skills with wrenches and a welder. He was the consummate drag racing "package", and the Barry Setzer team quickly set the Funny Car racing world on fire.
For three years the car ran at meets big and small, and maintained a hectic match racing schedule as well. Setzer wrote the checks and his only instructions were to run it as hard as possible. Track records fell and wins piled up. The Barry Setzer Vega Funny Car and team was the car to stop any time the truck and trailer drove through the pit gate.
After the Setzer team disbanded Foster hopped into several different cars and as usual, put 'em in the show and down the track until his driving retirement in 1980. Foster's considerable talents were quickly snapped up by the road racing contingent, and he spent several years in this segment of the industry, continuing to work his magic with metals and newer, more exotic composite materials. During that time he worked for a Can-Am team and was a part of the Nissan IMSA factory racing team. In spite of these challenging new frontiers, Patty's heart was always into drag racing.
By the late 1990's the nostalgia bug had created a demand for restoration race cars or complete new car builds faithful to what some of the sport's best known name cars were. Foster was approached and accepted the challenge, becoming the premier builder of several of these jewel-like masterpieces. Foster's recreation of the Beebe & Mulligan car, the Jade Grenade, Wale & Candies, Creitz & Donovan, Benny Osborn's "Wizard of Oz", the Surfer's car and Tom "Mongoose" McEwen's Indy winning English Leather Corvette Funny Car were just a few of the fabulous cars he created. He had just completed the recreation of New York Top Fuel racer Billy Lynch's new TF car when massive, life threatening heart problems landed him in the hospital. He had only recently relocated his shop and equipment from Wichita to Moscow, Idaho, and had several new car building projects waiting for his magic touch. Billy Lynch's typically flawless car now stands as Pat Foster's final work of art in metal.
As I reach the conclusion of this story I realize just how inadequate my words are in describing such a major figure in drag racing. Pat Foster was a superb race car driver, welder, fabricator, designer and assembler. He was also a talented tuner and clutch man in a game where all the secrets of going quick and fast are elusively located inside the bellhousing. More so, Pat Foster was a wonderful human being with a quick wit, snappy response and crystal-clear knowledge and opinion on a vast array of topics, both racing as well as non-racing related.
In the end, with his health rapidly failing and his demise imminent, he met his fate with the same quiet, iron-willed strength and dignity that earmarked his life. Our world and the sport of drag racing has lost one of its giants. More importantly, we've lost one of our true good guys. Although the chutes are out on Patty's life, all who had the good fortune to know him cherish the wonderful memories and the magnificently created race cars he as his legacy.