Former NHRA VP of Operations Graham Light described the summer of 1978 as a lot of fun.
Gordie Bonin, the freewheeling Funny car driver who passed in November 2013, felt it was a balanced mix between fun and the absurd.
The two drag racing figures teamed up as drivers in the 1979 B movie Fast Company.
Fast Company featured lots of Funny Car footage in its storyline about an aging Top Fuel driver and a sponsor-driven team owner who walked outside of traditional ethical lines. There were plenty of fires and a number of explosions, some skin from the female actors and a great measure of ludicrousness from producers not familiar to the sport.
Bonin’s involvement in the movie came through fellow Canadian Ron Hodgson, owner of Edmonton International Speedway in Alberta. At the time, Bonin was one of the leading drivers on the NHRA Winston Drag Racing Series and his driving talents were far above average.
Hodgson was familiar with Bonin because of a longtime team owner/driver relationship. The two had a common friend in Fast Company’s producer Gordon Smith.
“He told me they wanted to do a story on our lives,” Bonin told CompetitionPlus.com in 2010 of the producers. “They gave us $3,000 every time we fired that car.”
The film was mostly shot in Western Canada and Alberta, as Bonin puts it, “So it would look like it was shot in the United States … so people would want to watch it. If it looked like it was shot in Canada, no one would have come to see it.”
Light was employed by EIR at the time and witnessed the majority of the filming.
“They occupied my race track pretty much the whole summer,” recalled Light. “It was an interesting experience. It was fun.”
Light, who was also a Top Fuel driver at the time, did most of the dragster related stunts in the movie, in his own dragster as well as behind the wheel of another expendable rail. He even garnered a speaking role. It took four takes, but Light got it right after some creative ad-libbing.
“I guess they felt they owed me something because it was my racetrack,” admitted Light, with a laugh.
Light played the role of the track’s race official at an important race.
Under the influence of the villainous team owner, instead of using the traditional lower ET earning lane choice, Light was sent scurrying to the starting line to inform drivers lane choice would be determined by a coin toss.
“I had to go down and tell the two drivers the lanes would be chosen by the flip of the coin,” recalled Light. “So, they say, ‘Lights. Camera. Action and I walk in and I say, ‘Hold it, hold it, we gotta have to have a toin coss …”
“They said, ‘hold it, hold it … it’s coin toss, not toin coss. I said, ‘I understand, I understand.” So, we do the second take and I said the same thing again, ‘toin coss’. About the fourth time I just decided on myself to say, ‘ lane choice will be determined by the flip of a coin’ and that’s what they went with.”
Even though his role was small, Light was required to join the Screen Actors Guild and after paying his union and actor guild dues, pocketed about $22.
Light’s acting career has stalled since the cameo in Fast Company.
“Nobody else has ever asked me to play in another movie,” Light jokingly lamented.
Bonin’s team was compensated well for their participation but looking back, he can’t help but wonder if the producer’s pyrotechnic tendencies should have warranted extra hazard pay.
During the movie Bonin was blown up a handful of times, asked to do burnouts in a crowded parking lot, drive a nitro car down a popular Canadian thoroughfare after crashing through a garage door. As if that wasn’t enough, Bonin had to chase down a low-flying Cessna from the shutdown to starting line and simulate knocking off the plane’s wing.
Bonin admitted the stunt almost became too realistic.
“I’m hauling down there from the shutdown to the finish line and just as I hit the finish line, there’s a bump and I thought I had really hit the plane,” Bonin explained, pausing to laugh. “I’m trying to get this car stopped with the parachutes just as the guy flies his airplane into the rig.”
The final climatic scene in the movie portrayed the damaged plane pulling a kamikaze dive into an empty 18-wheel box trailer with explosives rigged to go off on impact. This was following a scene where a crew member for the villain had sought to sabotage the story’s hero with two drums of nitro poured out in the shutdown of the left lane.
Bonin was driving his former Pacemaker Vega Funny Car when the stunt coordinator rigged an explosion set to blow as one of the drivers drove over the top of the spilled fuel. Prior to the act, the coordinator, also a practiced demolitions expert, tried to assure those involved including Bonin, his crew chief Jerry Verheul and track owner Hodgson, there would be no repercussions from the stunt.
“This guy proclaimed that he could do the job with mothballs, black powder and a blasting cap,” explained Bonin.
“This guy said it so simple, ‘all Gordie has to do at the top of high gear when he shifts, hit a button and he’ll have the most horrendous fire he’s ever experienced but it will be out right away.”
“Verheul looks at him and said, ‘You’re not going to kill my driver are you?”
“Then Hodges looked at the demolitions man and asked, “Are you going to put a hole in my race track?”
The guy said, “Nah, nah, nah … I build a box, fill it full of mothballs, put powder in there with a blasting cap … so I am young and dumb and full of you know what, and Verheul looks at him and says, ‘We’d better get this right in one take.”
Fast forward to two hours later and Hodgson, Graham Light, Verheul and Bonin are sitting in the tower. The demolitions expert gets their attention. He points to a shack on the property and proclaims, “I will show you how good I am with my s***, here’s a little demonstration. See that shed in the distance? ‘I am so good; I will blow the door off with this.”
“I thought he was cool until the f****** building vaporized. I really felt safe after that,” Bonin said sarcastically.
Bonin still has the press kit from the movie and proudly emblazed [no pun intended] was the infamous fire.
“I remember the press kit for the movie had a still shot of the fire,” Bonin said. “It was the most horrendous fire and looked that way on the inside. But, it went out in just a few seconds. The inside of our trailer smelled like mothballs for months.”
Both Bonin and Light recently received a DVD copy of the movie, which is available at Amazon.com, and admit they get a good laugh out of the old flick.
Bonin might not be through with his drag racing movies just yet. Reportedly a group has approached him about a story based on his life. If this comes to pass, he’s nodding towards suggesting Owen Wilson portray his character.
Until the new movie materializes, Bonin revels in his role behind the scenes of Fast Company. He’s also proud of the movie.
“It was way better than the Heart Like a Cackle or wheel, or whatever that movie was,” Bonin said jokingly.