Skeptics didn’t faze Bill Kuhlmann, nor did racers with far more lofty accomplishments in the books.
In fact, nothing was going to alter the plan Kuhlmann had in mind as he set out to be the first drag racer of a “doored” car to reach the 200-mph mark.
No, in the spring of 1987, Kuhlmann dumped the sport on its keister by crossing that barrier based on his willingness to stray from conventional wisdom. Combine that with his trust in the strength of his convictions plus the right weather and track conditions, and Kuhlmann had the recipe for making history.
A little after 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 14, 1987, Kuhlmann didn’t simply reach the 200-mph mark, he blasted through it, tires spinning all the way on a run of 202.24 mph at Darlington (S.C.) Dragway. That run brought unprecedented attention to doorslammers, and provided the seed for the Pro Modified class that remains a fan favorite more than three decades later.
“Bill was always thinking out of the box,” said Rob Vandergriff, one of the handful of men, including Kuhlmann, who helped create Pro Mod. “So the things that everybody else would laugh about, Bill would try.
“Some people are scared of succeeding,” Vandergriff added, “but more people are scared of failing and ridicule, and that holds them back their entire lives. Bill was never afraid of being ridiculed, and that’s why he was a good racer. Anybody that’s successful in life, you have to get over the fear of getting ridiculed.”
As racers of doored cars gradually closed in on 200, the attention on the quest to reach that mark reached a fever pitch in trade publications. At the time, Bob Glidden had won the seventh of his eventual 10 NHRA Pro Stock championships and was heralded as the favorite to be the first to reach 200 mph. Warren Johnson, another Pro Stock racer with a gift for creating massive horsepower, was another.
Kuhlmann, of Wentzille, Mo., was considered a dark-horse shot at best, given that he had never topped 187 when he set out for Darlington. Earlier in life, Kuhlmann had worked in construction, designed buildings for a lumber yard, and ran a route as a salesman for Frito-Lay. But most of his time was devoted to drag racing, and he opened his own business in his early 20s.
He gained regional notoriety in the Pro Stock ranks on the United Drag Racing Association circuit. Even with what most of the sport would consider meager credentials, he didn’t back down from the challenge of being the first to 200. For what would probably be his lone shot as drag racing immortality, Kuhlmann rebuilt a third-generation Camaro that he’d crashed.
That incident occurred at St. Louis international Raceway in a UDRA season finale, and the memory of it remains fresh in Kuhlmann’s mind.
“I’m going down the track, it breaks loose, and I’m running parallel to the track in the grass,” he said. “They had had a monster truck show in that area the night before. I remember I blasted down there, I’m going through the grass semi in control, and I noticed a radio antenna was working its way up through my floorboard, coming at me like a snake, and I remember watching that thing, hoping it didn’t get me.
“When I looked up, I saw a lady and her kid standing on the guardrail. Her eyes got so damn wide — she thought I was going to kill them both. I remember in the car saying, ‘Lady, if I’ve gotta crash this car, I promise you I’m not going to hit you,’ and I didn’t. I put it in the guardrail prior to her.”
At that time, the Camaro was outfitted with a small wing on the rear deck for improved downforce. He found out the hard way that it wasn’t large enough to handle the speeds he attained. He didn’t ditch the car, nor did he immediately rebuild it. Instead, a friend and sponsor from St. Louis named John Taylor gave him a new Jerry Haas-built car equipped with a top-drawer Reher & Morrison engine “and told me to take it and go race” the next year.
Even so, the 200-mph barrier was never far from Kuhlmann’s mind. He repaired the damage to the front end of the Camaro, then covered the headlight and grill areas with Lexan for a smoother profile to enhance aerodynamics. He removed “everything out of the car that wasn’t necessary” to make it lighter. And on the back end of the car he installed a much larger wing. “Giant,” he said.
He also went bigger under the hood, purchasing a 615 cubic-inch engine kit from Virginia’s Sonny Leonard that he assembled himself.
But Kuhlmann didn’t stop there. He wanted the engine to provide even more punch than expected, so he contacted Mike Thermos in California, whose company, NOS, was making nitrous oxide packages for drag racing applications. NOS was started by Thermos and a friend who each kicked in $1,000, and the venture began to take off once they developed a carburetor spacer for racing.
“And then, by the time Kuhlmann came around, we had built a nozzle called the fogger nozzle,” Thermos said. “We knew that one in each port was important, and so we started building a tube we called ‘the fogger.’
“Kuhlmann called us up … and he wanted to go faster; thought he could. He didn’t think the (nitrous) kit he had was working that well, but he couldn’t get ahold of those guys that much. I said, ‘Well, why don’t you let us put a fogger on it? Send us your manifold, let us help. We’ll do it for free. We need a fast car. We need a good engine.’ ”
Thermos said he also told Kuhlmann he was wasting his time limiting the scope of his racing to UDRA. Instead, Thermos suggested, if being the first to 200 was Kuhlmann’s objective, he should consider entering IHRA’s Winter Nationals. Darlington Dragway would provide a far better track than those on which Kuhlmann was accustomed to competing; one that could accommodate the speeds he was chasing. Kuhlmann liked his chances to reach 200 first because he was “this guy out in the Midwest who runs awful fast on really bad racetracks.”
In 1987, the IHRA class in which Kuhlmann’s entry would fit — massive cubic inches with the nitrous boost — was Top Sportsman. Kuhlmann hadn’t raced with IHRA before, so he called its then-president, Ted Jones, to discuss his entry.
“I was getting a lot of coverage in all the magazines as a possibility of being a 200-mile-an-hour guy,” Kuhlmann said. “I called Ted Jones and told him who I was, thinking he may recognize who I am from all the magazine articles and saying that I was coming down there to try to run 200 miles an hour. All I requested was that I get to park on pavement because I’m bringing a legitimate Pro Stock car down there and that I get in for free. Frankly, I didn’t have any extra money to pay the entry fee because that’s the longest trip I ever made away from home.
“We get to Darlington and are blown away by how many cars are at that event. They park us out in the middle of nowhere in the Top Sportsman pits, just dirt and dust.”
Almost as soon as Kuhlmann and his son, Barry, unloaded the car from the hauler, the Camaro attracted attention from racers who didn’t hesitate to voice their skepticism.
“All the Southeast boys about laughed us out of the place because of the giant wing and the covered headlight and grill areas,” Kuhlmann said.
“All the Pro Stock guys came over and said, ‘What are you doing with that big coffee table of a wing on there? That’s just going to slow you down, boy,’ ” Thermos said. “And he says, ‘Well, I’m going to need some traction with this nitrous on.’ And nobody knew the nitrous thing. Everybody just knew cubic inches, you know?”
“Back then, everything we did was stuff nobody had ever done before,” Vandergriff said. “We had more balls than brains, OK? That’s what it took. None of us had any engineering experience, we were just a bunch of racers trying to put a bunch of power in a car and had gotten used to racing on a bunch of shitty-ass racetracks.”
Kuhlmann’s first qualifying attempt came on Friday night, “and in high gear, we blew the clutch out of the car and it still coasted through at 191, 192 miles an hour. I took shoe polish and wrote on the side of the trailer, ‘190-whatever — more to come.’ What we didn’t realize is that we were really getting laughed out of the place, but I already knew we had this thing in the bag.
“Meantime, Sonny Leonard came over and that 190-whatever was one of the fastest runs in history. He comes over and introduces himself. I had never spoken to him, I had dealt with a salesman of his. I said, ‘Sonny, to be honest with you, 200 miles an hour is going to be a piece of cake.’ And he just looked at me funny, turned around, walked away, walked straight over to Bob Glidden.
“He’s over talking to Glidden, and they’re maybe 30 feet away from me. He points over to me — I can hear him but he don’t know it — and says, ‘You see that stupid sumbitch over there? He thinks 200’s going to be a piece of cake.’ And Bob Glidden just shook his head.”
Kuhlmann, though, was spot-on in his assessment of his car’s potential.. He would rocket through the timing trap at 202.24 mph on his next pass, which came shortly after Glidden had hammered on the door at an oh-so-close 199 mph in his Pro Stock entry.
“I took off on a decent launch, pulled second gear, put it in third gear, hit the nitrous button and the car took off like a rocket,” Kuhlmann said. “It was slowly working its way off the left side of the racetrack. I couldn’t get it back in the groove — tires were spinning — and I remember saying to myself, ‘I am going to keep my foot in this thing as long as there’s pavement under me.’ We went right over to the left edge, and then I let up and brought her back to the middle and put out the chutes.
“At Darlington in ’87, you were down in a black hole when you stopped, way the hell down there. I get out, get the parachutes gathered up, and start driving back to the pits. Some guy came running through the field from the bleacher area, waving at me, so I stopped and he asked, ‘Are you the guy from Missouri?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘Well, congratulations, I want to be the first to tell you you’re the first go 200 miles an hour.’
“I was happy — not crazily happy, but I knew I could do it from the previous run. I stopped there at the scales … and I went through tech, tech, tech, tech, tech before they finally acknowledged that I was the first 200-mile-per-hour guy.”
Vandergriff had made a pass “a car or a coupla cars” ahead of Kuhlmann’s run. As he approached the scales to pick up his time slip, he was aware that something spectacular had just occurred.
“I was on the return road, and I knew something had happened because the crowd was going crazy,” Vandergriff said. “At Darlington, there were big wrecks. The Winternationals, at night, the dew falls, the wind blows across the track — there’s all kinds of crazy stuff. When it gets dark, anything can happen. I knew either somebody crashed or somebody had done something pretty spectacular.
“I asked the girl at the E.T. shack what the heck was going on, and she said somebody had run 200 miles an hour. She showed me the slip. The E.T. slip has a car number on it but not a name. I saw the E.T. slip before Bill did, but I didn’t know he was the one who’d gone 200. When we got back to the pits, everybody was going crazy. It was a big deal for drag racing.”
Leonard was among those who stopped by Kuhlmann’s trailer to give him a pat on the back, and it was only then he grasped the magnitude of the accomplishment.
“I really didn’t think that it was so important to his racing to be the first full-bodied car to run 200 miles an hour,” Leonard said. “You could run 199 all day and it ain’t no big deal, but you run 200? I didn’t realize how important that was. … I just didn’t think much about it. But when he did it, that was something.”
As Kuhlmann recalls, Glidden scoffed at the validity of the historic run: “He said, ‘No, it couldn’t have happened. Nobody could run 200 miles an hour if they fell off a cliff’ — totally overlooking the fact that he had just run 199.”
But the following day, in eliminations and with an engine he didn’t know had a damaged piston, Kuhlmann ran 199 in daytime conditions. He cracked 200 again at the next IHRA race, Rockingham, “and I ran over 200 at every damn event I went to, including match races and UDRA races, for a year and a quarter before anybody else did.”
Kuhlmann’s celebration of running the first 200 was little more than a dinner at a Darlington restaurant with his girlfriend, his son, Thermos and Thermos’ partner at NOS, Waddy Hamam.
“They didn’t have enough tables for us, so they sat us at two tables. Denise was sitting closer to them than I was, and she’s relaying to me what she hears,” Kuhlmann said. “She said, ‘Could you believe they’re debating whether they should bring you to California or not and all they’re talking about is promote, promote, promote.’ …
“On the way home from Darlington, I had her take out a legal pad and write down the name of every company whose product I had on that car. And every part was one I purchased except for the NOS system. I wrote every one of those companies thanking them for the performance of their product to help me bust the 200-mph mark, and I’d say 95 percent of those companies gave me free stuff from then on. So that was a big, big boost to my pocketbook in a sense because I didn’t have to put out that money.”
After Darlington, the seeds of Pro Modified began to blossom. Thermos agreed to fund a special race within each IHRA national event in which the four quickest qualifiers in Top Sportsman would square off for an eventual $500 prize. That soon expanded to eight cars, and in 1990, IHRA Pro Mod was born.
Kuhlmann’s best finish in IHRA competition was a runner-up showing to Scotty Cannon in the 1993 points chase. The class made stars of Kuhlmann and Cannon as well Vandergriff, Tim McAmis, Tommy Mauney, Fred Hahn, Charles Carpenter, Al Billes, Ed Hoover, Shannon Jenkins and others.
Kuhlmann eventually turned his attention to competing on the Super Chevy Show circuit. His 200-mph pass had brought Pro Mod racing attention in numerous ways, including sponsorship from companies such as Summit, which backed Kuhlmann for 13 seasons.
The landmark blast at Darlington “changed my racing career forever,” Kuhlmann said.
Sadly, though, the Camaro no longer exists. It was destroyed by an accidental fire at Kuhlmann’s shop near Florida, Mo., on Jan. 27, 2013, that caused $1.7 million in damage.
When he had finished coating a board with polyurethane that morning, Kuhlmann had tossed a cheap paint brush into a trash can. But inside that bin was sawdust, and the chemical reaction of the drying polyurethane plus sawdust sparked a blaze. Kuhlmann lost the building and everything inside it — his racecars, large tractors, a motorhome, pistons, nuts, bolts … everything.
“I went into the pile to start demolishing the building and it didn’t move, it was melted together. That’s how hot that fire was,” Kuhlmann said. “The recycle place told me I could get more money if everything was under 2 foot, so when I cut the giant rear-end housing apart, you could have eaten off the inside of it because all the 90-weight oil had boiled itself clean. It was a hot fire.”
Kuhlmann, now 73, and his wife Vicky live on a 65-acre property “with a million-dollar view” on the edge of Mark Twain Lake. He describes himself as a “workaholic” who sells firewood and who, with his wife, built a storage facility for RVs and boats. He occasionally takes time out to play golf and go fishing.
“If I didn’t have a boatload of work to do every day I’d probably have to take some kind of anxiety pill,” he said. “I built a small shop to replace the big shop I had. I live right across the street from a marina and the largest campground up here. I tell people I live where everybody else goes on vacation.”