They didn’t come with pitchforks and torches in the middle of the night, but that kind of a mob might have been easier to deal at the time. They were a secret circle of sorts, the kind who traveled with a chrome-plated anvil replica seeking to make everyone remember their most forgettable moments.
While the multitude of personalities we interviewed couldn’t say definitively who created the “anvil award,” they didn’t hesitate to point out who kept the recognition of shame going.
It was all on former crewman Mike Guger, a Dale Armstrong protege and who tuned Leah Pritchett to her first NHRA Top Fuel win. He readily takes the credit for Drag Racing’s version of the Darwin Awards.
“I know everything about it, I created it,” Guger admitted.
What started out as a joke with Ed McCulloch presenting Guger and his associates with a hunk of iron, (no one knows what it began life as), but soon was shaped to resemble an anvil, and chromed for effect.
“The original intent was you get it good or bad, but you know how it goes; it ended up being whoever screwed up the worst that week,” Guger explained. “Then, when you had it, you could make the presentation to the next guy. There were about three or four of us that are on that committee or whatever.”
Darrell Gwynn remembers all too well the pomp and circumstance of shame.
“Whoever was going to get it, the person that was presenting it that got it the week before would walk down the pit area,” Gwynn explained. “And, you just would see this emptying of the pits. And, everybody just dropped what they were doing. It was standard operating procedure that you can’t interrupt anything in racing, but this did. You stopped what you were doing, and you followed The Anvil down to the presenter.
“It was more about the speeches and the crucifying than it was about The Anvil itself. The Anvil itself, it’s the appropriate award, because no matter how hard you beat on an anvil, you can’t f*** it up, you know what I mean?”
The inaugural recipient was a noted crew chief regarded for his pranking ability – Dave Settles.
“His name is scratched on there because apparently they made a run and came back, and something blew up or whatever,” Guger recalled. “Somebody, one of the crew guys, was spraying solvent, or whatever, well it caught on fire, so they had the giant fire in the pits.”
Settles might have won the first, but the consensus was Frank Bradley won the overall championship.
“Of course it didn’t matter who it was,” Guger admitted. “Right through the ropes in there, whether it’s Tim Richards or it didn’t matter, you charged in there.
“You didn’t have any choice about taking it. You didn’t want to look like an ass in front of your peers. You had to take it. That’s what was cool about it. You had to swallow that. Everybody came into your pit; you couldn’t get mad. You just had to swallow it.”
Gwynn regards The Anvil ceremony as some of the most fun he’s had in drag racing.
“It was a tension reliever, you know, because it was like, it was like going to the therapist,” Gwynn admitted. “There was closure, you know. Because when you do something really stupid, whether you’re [Rob] Flynn or whether you’re Alan Johnson, and you put the rotors in backward in the blower, hey, we all make mistakes. We’re human. It’s funny, you know, it can happen to the best of us. And, if you can’t take it, get the hell out.”
A thick skin was a must, and if it became apparent, the recipient was bothered by the all in fun award, your chances of becoming a repeat winner significantly increased.
“Guger. He’s like, if he knows it bothers you, well then, it’s game on,” Crewchief Dickie Venables said.
Lee Beard earned a date with The Anvil, and while the award was cause for embarrassment, he took his appointment in stride, going as far as to bring the token of shame to the winner’s circle at the ensuing event win. He earned his moment in the hall of shame while serving as crew chief for Kenny Bernstein. Beard was all too willing to lay blame on someone else for his telltale snafu.
“We warmed up the car, and right after we warmed up, Cheryl [Bernstein] had brought a pretty large group of people into the pit, and it kind of disrupted our normal maintenance there on a race day morning,” Beard recalled.
“The pit tour that took place totally interrupted our normal routine that you have on race day morning where you warm up, retorque the heads, and set the valves, and adjust the clutch, and change the oil, and all of that kind of stuff. We had to back out of the area while this pit tour was going on.
“We get up there for the first round, and we were running pretty good that weekend. We start the car, and it doesn’t have any oil pressure.”
In Beard’s case, the moment was so disruptive it led the crew to overlook an essential procedure in their maintenance. They forgot to put oil in the car.
Adding insult to injury, at the time, Bernstein was sponsored by Prolong, an engine additive formulated to treat the metal surfaces of both gasoline and diesel-fueled engines. Prolong had come out with an infomercial where a car had no oil in the engine was able to drive around without any in the car. The one chore the crew did remember was to pour in Prolong, just no oil.
Beard and the team won the next race.
“I took it to the winner’s circle and held it proudly, there’s photographic proof,” Beard admitted.
A much younger Chad Head witnessed all of the “not-so-secret” shenanigans.
“I’d bet you there would have been; there’d be 30, 40 of us, that would take this anvil and present it to that crew chief or that driver or that team, each race,” Head recalled. “And I remember one time taking it to Tim Richards at Bernstein’s and he wasn’t amused. Again I was a kid, so I was just obviously following the crowd and being part of it. But this was all directed by the elders. The guys that had been doing this forever. And so as a kid, you just kind of like, ‘Man, this is kind of funny right.”
In those early days, it was relatively easy to keep the impromptu award a relative secret within the family, but it didn’t take long before the “secret” got out. TNN did a television feature on it, and soon everyone knew what was going on.
“Spectators would see this whole group of people heading towards somebody’s pit, and then you could hear them, “Oh, I think they’re giving out the Anvil.”
“It honestly kind of got to the point to where, as all this got more corporate, more it almost wasn’t the thing to do anymore,” Venables added.
Almost 20 years removed, some believe its time for The Anvil to make a comeback.
“Oh, absolutely. It would be good to have back,” Head declared. “I mean it would, again, it would break up the seriousness and the political game. But unfortunately, social media would probably ruin it, because social media ruins everything. Again, social media is a good thing for sponsors, and it’s a good thing for advertising products, and it’s a good thing for a few things. But man, there’s times I wish we didn’t have social media, drives me up a wall.
“Just for the fact of how sensitive everybody is and you say one wrong thing on social media and heck, you could be fired. But it’s the world we live in, and it’s what we got to deal with. I think it would be great if we had it back because I think it just brings some humor back to what we used to do back in the day.”
“The thing is, you got to have somebody that will take and run with it, and keep it going,” Venables said. “That’s the hard part nowadays because it’s literally, it’s like something else you got to do, you know. You got to get organized and get people organized and all that. And, it’s like our time at the racetrack, man, it’s like you don’t have time to look up anymore, practically.”
Two names come to mind to reinstate The Anvil. Well, maybe two or three.
” I guess if I was made of money and money was no object, I’d just put Guger on the payroll, and I would just tell him that that was his job,” Head said with a smile. “He would be the Anvil King, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. There’s Joe Barlam and John Stewart, right?”
Definitely not Nicky Boninfante, the recognized second-largest pot-stirrer in the pits after Guger. Head believes he would get The Anvil for The Anvil.
“Definitely not him,” Head said emphatically. “That would require organization and work, and he does neither one of those. And you can absolutely print that. He would be fired after the first two races.”
As Beard sees it, The Anvil came along in a simpler time of drag racing.
“There were some guys that took it as fun and games and other guys took it as ‘An embarrassment.’ Or an insult. But it kind of had a place because I’m pretty sure that maybe if it was going today that maybe it would be going to Steve Torrence for that boneheaded move, he made there at Pomona.”