NHRA's 50 GREATEST DRIVERS
#31: DICK LaHAIE
In a long and distinguished and still ongoing career in drag racing, Dick LaHaie has proven himself of championship caliber of numerous fronts. An NHRA Winston Top Fuel champion as a driver in 1987 and a two-time championship crew chief for Scott Kalitta (1993-94), LaHaie has been responsible for countless national event wins in a fuel-racing career that has spanned more than 35 years.
He also was able to overcome injuries and financial constraints to field a series of consistently competitive racecars.
LaHaie's beginnings are typical of many who enjoy success in drag racing -- he was into cars early. In 1955, at age 13, LaHaie landed a well-paying job at a home-improvement company. In just three years, he purchased his first car, and it wasn't just a grocery-getter, either -- it was a '48 Mercury coupe. Within three months, he replaced the flathead engine with an Olds V-8.
LaHaie built his own A-frames and did all of the wiring, all at the age of 16 in his mother's driveway. The car was a standard street rod, and LaHaie was a frequent figure at local hangouts. A year later, he bought a '50 Ford coupe that he raced on the street for a year before dropping in a GranCor 296-cid flathead and a 4.10-geared overdrive transmission.
After that, the ambitious Michigan teen-ager purchased a '53 Ford business coupe that he equipped with a 270-horsepower Corvette engine and four-speed tranny. That car brought to a close his street-racing days and opened the portals to drag racing.
In 1959, Central Michigan Dragway opened its doors, and it didn't take long for the 17-year-old LaHaie to try his luck. In his maiden effort, he won the E/Gas class with a 14.35, 110-mph clocking. It would be the first of many trophies that LaHaie would win at Michigan dragstrips.
LaHaie bought a '55 Olds the following season, ran it in I/SA, and set a national record. LaHaie raced the car at Detroit Dragway on Tuesday and Friday nights, U.S. 131 on Saturdays, and Anondaga Dragway on Sundays. During one stretch, LaHaie won at those tracks for 14 straight weeks.
After selling the Olds and running a 476-cid Olds-powered '51 Henry J in 1961 and 1962, LaHaie hooked up with Noah Canfield and Charlie Johnson, two racers who would make a significant change in LaHaie's racing profile. Canfield and Johnson campaigned the Glass Chariot AA/Modified Fuel Roadster in the Midwest, and LaHaie filled in as a driver when Johnson couldn't make it.
The Canfield and Johnson team moved up to Top Fuel in 1964, and knowing the popularity and booking power of the Glass Chariot, LaHaie ran the operation on his own; his first full-time blown and injected nitro ride.
Trying to bid for national exposure, LaHaie wanted to gain a spot on the popular Drag News Junior Eliminator list. He challenged Gabby Bleeker's roadster first, and when Bleeker forfeited, LaHaie took over the number-six spot and opened the door to go after the number-one Heidelberg team. His first shot ended in disappointment. LaHaie beat them easily in the first round, but broke the crankshaft and could not continue. He got his rematch later in the year and took the win with times of 8.58 and 8.54 to win the number-one spot handily. LaHaie retained that title until the Junior Eliminator class was discontinued a year later.
In 1966, Canfield, Johnson, and LaHaie joined forces again and built a new Top Fueler. LaHaie had a great year, winning 11 weeks in a row at different tracks. However, at the end of the season, Canfield and Johnson retired, leaving LaHaie on his own.
LaHaie's first move was to join the United Drag Racers Association (UDRA) because he knew some of the best names in drag racing competed in the popular Midwest circuit. LaHaie stayed with UDRA at various levels of involvement through the 1976 season, winning circuit titles in 1970, 1973, and 1976.
During that period, LaHaie built all of his own cars at Wayne Farr's shop in Lansing, Mich. He built his first rear-engined car in 1972 and every car he raced up through and including his 1984 car.
As many factors began to drive up the price of racing, LaHaie, who was always budget conscious, was forced to get maximum performance out of a minimum amount of parts. Over the years, he became one of the best in the sport at it.
In 1975, LaHaie's drag racing future was severely tested. While debuting a new car at the Gatornationals, the throttle hung open, and in an attempt to stop the car, he deliberately blew up the engine. The car got into the oil, veered off the track, and crashed into some trees. LaHaie suffered injuries to his left hand and right arm.
LaHaie hired fellow UDRA Top Fuel shoe Jon Thomas to drive while he recovered. LaHaie got back into the car a week before the U.S. Nationals at U.S. 13 Dragstrip and won the event. On his third qualifying run at the U.S. Nationals, LaHaie was on a solid lap when he felt a horrendous vibration at the finish line. The front wing had been built wrong and didn't supply enough downforce. That, coupled with the fact that the front tires were hitting the wheel fairings, caused the car to crash. LaHaie lost a toe and broke his right arm again.
A month after the accident, LaHaie decided he was going to race again, and Marv Rifchin, founder and president of M&H Tires, cut him a check for a new Top Fueler.
The new car was ready in April 1976, and LaHaie's first race was at Tri-City Dragway in Saginaw, Mich. From that first lap until the 1987 national event in Brainerd, when he was in the midst of a championship, LaHaie kept a little secret -- he never drove a car full throttle through the lights.
At the 1980 Summernationals, LaHaie won his first national event by beating Jeb Allen in the final. The following year, he was the NHRA Eastern Region Top Fuel champion. In 1982, three significant things happened: He debuted a new Wayne Farr-built chassis at the Winternationals and won; in Indy, his 22-year-old daughter, Kim, debuted as his crew chief; and he sold his business, Automotive Research, and became a full-time Pro racer.
In 1984, the LaHaies finished fifth in points with their best performance coming at the Southern Nationals, where he was runner-up. In 1985, he scored a Gatornationals victory, and the father-daughter team was quickly becoming the sentimental favorites. The next year, LaHaie enjoyed one of his best seasons, finishing third in points after reaching six finals and winning twice.
The 1987 season proved to be the most fruitful as a driver for LaHaie. He landed Miller Brewing Co. as a sponsor and hooked up with team owner Larry Minor and won his elusive first Winston Top Fuel crown. During the season, he and Kim won five events, including three straight. Between 1988 and his retirement from driving in 1991, LaHaie scored five more victories and reached his last final at the 1990 Heartland Nationals, losing to Joe Amato.
When he retired, he had no doubts that his driving career was over and never thought he could be a crew chief. That changed when Connie Kalitta called him to wrench for his son Scott's Top Fuel team in 1993. It was a perfect marriage. LaHaie helped turn Scott into one of the most dominant drivers in the 1990s. The tandem finished second to Eddie Hill in 1993. In 1994 and 1995, the team was unstoppable, winning back-to-back championships before falling just short of a third straight in 1996.
As a crew chief, LaHaie has not gone a season without tuning his driver to a victory. In 1998, he helped Top Fuel newcomer Doug Kalitta to a single victory, and in 1999, he helped Doug Herbert and Larry Dixon to titles during the course of the year. In 2000, LaHaie was vital in the resurgence of the Don Prudhomme-backed Top Fueler driven by Dixon, which finished third, and this year, he is primed to win his fourth Winston title as a driver or crew chief.
NHRA's Top 50 Drivers will be unveiled on NHRA.com and through the pages of National DRAGSTER, in reverse order throughout the 2001 season, with a schedule leading up to the naming of the top driver at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway on Nov. 11.
As NHRA celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2001, it has emerged as one of the most popular spectator sports, highlighted by a $50 million, 24-event, nationally televised tour. The NHRA has developed into the world's largest motorsports sanctioning body, with more than 80,000 members nationwide, and more than 140 member tracks. <pre> NHRA's 50 GREATEST DRIVERS 50. Elmer Trett 49. Richard Tharp 48. Malcolm Durham 47. Billy Meyer 46. Ken Veney 45. Scotty Richardson 44. Dave Schultz 43. Frank Hawley 42. David Rampy 41. John Mulligan 40. Frank Manzo 39. Danny Ongais 38. James Warren 37. Edmond Richardson 36. Blaine Johnson 35. Terry Vance 34. Willie Borsch 33. Brad Anderson 32. Darrell Gwynn 31. Dick LaHaie