Drag racing legend Don Prudhomme described them as wise beyond their years. If anyone should know about Pat Galvin and Donnie Couch,it’s Prudhomme. He watched the 1970s-era rockstar nitro crew members grow up with him on the road..
When they came into the fold, the stipulation for their employment wasn’t whether or not they were efficient at turning a wrench. Instead, Galvin and Couch had to make good grades and behave reasonably well in school.
For Galvin, living next door to a Funny Car driver and being a male had its privileges. It was a dream come true for the 13-year old kid.
“My next-door neighbor, Bob Pickett, had a Funny Car and the late sixties and he had two young daughters,” Galvin said. “He would send them over to get me to come over and polish things when I was young.”
It wasn’t long before polishing translated over to helping at San Fernando Raceway, one of Pickett’s stomping grounds.
For Couch, he was born into the sport.
“My dad used to race an A/Modified Production at Irwindale, Orange County and Lions. He’d take me to the races, I’d run around there, and I clearly had an interest in Funny Cars, so obviously I hung around that group. I started hanging out at Keith Black’s shop.”
The two ran in the same nitro circles, just with different members of the fraternity. One thing for sure, the two were positioning themselves for prominence in the group.
Galvin inherited crewchief status for Pickett, who had just taken over the Mickey Thompson-owned Funny Car when Larry Arnold quit. It was an opportunity of a lifetime for Galvin, although the wages didn’t confirm it.
“I went on the road with Bob actually for food. Room and board was what he paid me,” Galvin admitted. “We got three races in, and the crew chief quit, and I was next man standing.”
Galvin admits he and Pickett raced as many as 68 events and match races over the summer. As he puts it, selling the idea of a minor being on the wild and sometimes unforgiving road wasn’t a hard sell.
“My parents trusted Bob and knew his wife Jenny,” Galvin recalled. “My older brother Mike was into drag racing and worked on front-engine Top Fuel cars and worked on Bob’s stuff too, so it was just something that my family felt comfortable with. My parents very seldom went to the races, but they felt very comfortable that it was a place for me to go where I wasn’t out partying with my friends. I was focused on racing and trying to learn.”
That didn’t mean there wasn’t partying on the road.
“I certainly learned a lot about life and the world at a pretty young age,” Galvin said. “And got to know and see the stars and be around them and in a racing environment, hotels, et cetera. So yes, I may have seen something that one time that I shouldn’t have seen.”
While Galvin was busy seeing what he shouldn’t have seen, his counterpart Couch was busy learning the ropes at 15 of being a wheelman when a crewman needed some shuteye.
“Those were some crazy times when I had got caught driving McEwen’s truck by the Ohio State troopers and got in all kinds of trouble,” Couch, said. “It was made clear if they let me drive the truck again, they were fired. I was bummed out, right? Because in my mind, I was a truck driver, my dad was a truck driver.”
Where there’s a will, there’s a way. And back in those days, the Funny Car racers were nomadic, often traveling in herds.
Couch might have wrenched for Tom McEwen, but soon found his way to the driver’s seat of another hauler.
“I ended up driving for Freddie Dename, not knowing his reputation,” Couch said. “I didn’t know what a mafia was or nothing. Then we would go to that restaurant and bar where he lived and he had a shop on one side and his bar on the other and now I watch it on the history channel and s*** man, that’s where they cut up all the bodies and all the stolen cars went through there.
“I’m watching it and my kids are going, ‘Dad, why do you look so kind of weird? You look pale.”
“Well I was at that, I was there at the Gemini Lounge when I was 16 years old.”
It was in those days of spirited hauler driving when Couch recalls meeting Galvin for the first time when Galvin joined McEwen’s Funny Car team.
“Oh yeah, yeah. I mean our, when we met our first conversation was I go, “Hey Pat, you’re Pat, I’m Don.” I go, “How’d you like me to f****** pop that zit on your f***** forehead before it kills somebody?”
“Because Pat used to have a really bad complexion, pimples and s*** and that’s how our friendship started.”
The teenagers were a natural combination, and this from time to time rubbed some of the veteran members of the team the wrong way.
“Alan Gillis was a pretty, pretty well to do crew chief back then and he had worked for the Ramchargers and Eddie Schartman, I mean he was seen as coarse, right?” Couch explained. “He got tired of us kids because he told McEwen, ‘Look, these guys don’t even want to get out of bed in the morning to work on the car, they want to sleep into 11. If you don’t do something about it, I’m going to quit Tom. These kids are driving me crazy.”
“Tom goes, ‘Well Alan, good luck to you in the rest of your career.”
“And he still talks about that story.”
Galvin’s illustrious career in addition to working with Pickett and McEwen also included Prudhomme, Mickey Thompson and Shirley Muldowney. On the other side, Couch worked with McEwen, Prudhomme, Billy Meyer, Shirley Muldowney, Raymond Beadle, Dan Pastorini and Kenny Bernstein.
During this time, they never really realized they were living their dreams with their heroes one day at a time. They were kids who didn’t need a babysitter, at least that’s how Prudhomme saw it.
“They fit right in,” Prudhomme explained. “Galvin was especially good, I think. He’s a smart guy. Donnie was just really excellent.”
If only Prudhomme would have known how efficient his boys were at pranking their teammates. Couch counsels one should not fall for the innocent persona Galvin will sometimes put forth.
“He caused most of the trouble,” Couch explained. “Pat was the guy that pulled a lot of pranks on people, and he’d really make you look like a dummy if you fell for it. He’d always pull pranks, and we had to get back at him.
“I remember we’re racing with Shirley up in Sonoma and we’re on the starting line, Pat’s in shorts, it’s a hot day out and I depantsed him on the starting line. I go, “Oh f***, Pat. What a day not to wear underwear.”
But when it all came down to it, they had each other’s backs.
“He’s my dearest friend; he’s a godfather,” Galvin said without hesitation. “He and Annette are godparents to my sons Nicholas and Trevor. And my wife and I are a godfather to Wesley, is their son.”
When tragedy struck the Galvin family, and son Nicholas was injured in an accident, Couch recalled the heartbreaking emotion which overwhelmed them. Seeing Nicholas as one of his own children, refused to accept anything but a positive outcome.
“I get the call, and they say, “Hey, Pat’s up at the UCLA Medical Center. Nicky’s in a coma. They don’t think he’s going to make it through the night. You need to go see Pat. He’s there by himself.”
“I hauled ass over there. I walk in the hospital room, and I go, “Hey Nicky, it’s Uncle Don, wake up.”
“I’ll be damned if that kid didn’t open his eyes and say, “Uncle Don.”
“Everybody came running in, and hell Pat and I were freaked out because they thought that was his last evening that he’d be here with us. But we jumped up, went across the street to the bar and started pounding beers and go, ‘Man, we’re not religious people, but I think we are now.”
While they won’t go as far as to say their friendship is a match made in Heaven, the will say their experiences growing up together in the world of nomadic drag racing in the 1970s was about as good as it gets.
“I’d like to think that it was a learning, cultural experience,” Galvin said. “Taught me a lot, taught me emphasis on details and taught me a lot. It was like being on tour. It was like touring with The Rolling Stones and it was bigger than life. The fan base followed you everywhere from hotels to race tracks. I got to experience things that probably would never have had the experience if it wasn’t for them, giving me a chance.”
“Back then, see we didn’t even realize what we were or who we are working with,” Couch admitted. “I mean we knew it was a big deal because when we started going to all these races and rolling into town we’re getting treated like rock stars. Everybody knew who they were all of a sudden. I mean back in the day nobody gave a f***, we were some dirty old racers coming to town, but when we rolled in with these Hot Wheels deals and man, it was just, you felt like a rock star.
“I don’t think Pat and I really appreciated it until we started losing some friends and stuff and thinking about everything we had done in our past and wow, we’re really lucky.”