Baranek: Chris Karamesines dragging into ‘golden’ age
By Tony Baranek email@example.com March 14, 2013 8:20PM
Hometown octogenarian Chris Karamesines and his power plant are ready for another season of NHRA Top Fuel competition. | Photo courtesy of NHRA
Updated: April 16, 2013 4:09PM
Every year, as the drag racing season turns to winter, Chris Karamesines and his wife, Sandy, sit down on the couch in their Hometown home, and she pops the question.
It’s always the same question. A short one.
“Well ... what do you think?”
Chris Karamesines never has to think long.
“He’ll always say, ‘Well ... I don’t want to hang around with the old geezers,’ ” Sandy said.
This gentleman rather would start his engine.
It’s been 61 years since Karamesines fired up his 1936 Ford Phaeton and won his first drag race in 1952. He’s 81 now — or at least that’s what his driver’s license says — and he’s ready for another campaign.
Karamesines, known as “The Golden Greek” on the circuit, is making his 2013 debut in the Top Fuel Division this weekend at the NHRA Amalie Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., where he’ll be zipping along at 300-plus mph seeking his first career NHRA event title.
Yeah, that’s right. Karamesines has ZERO titles on the most popular drag racing circuit in the world. Yet in 2001, he was named No. 30 on the NHRA’s Greatest Drivers list during a 50th anniversary celebration. He’s in a couple of Halls of Fame, being inducted to the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1997, and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2006.
He’s had his victories, his first national title coming in the World Series of Drag Racing event at Cordova, Ill., in 1959. He’s also won titles on smaller circuits such as the American Hot Rod Association, the American Drag Racing Association and the International Hot Rod Association, and from the 1950s through the ’70s was notoriously good in match races held independently at strips across the nation.
But his wins aren’t what make Karamesines “The Golden Greek.” It’s his personality, the flair, the stories.
To his fans, Chris Karamesines is a hero. A legend, really.
Many people believe he was the first drag racer to break the 200-mph barrier, doing it in his “Chizler” Chrysler at a track in Alton, Ill., in 1960. The believers refute others’ claims the timing equipment was faulty.
“Back in that time the record-keeping was not nearly what it is today,” Graham Light, senior vice president of racing operations for the NHRA, said. “The accuracy of the timing equipment was suspect at times.
“That’s not to say he ran suspicious in any way, but if you listen to some of the legends like Chris and (Don) Garlits, and they get into a debate … it makes for some very interesting conversation.”
Faulty or not, with it not being an NHRA event, the run wasn’t officially recognized. The NHRA record book lists Garlits as the first to exceed 200 mph, in 1964.
There are other stories about Karamesines’ extraordinary ability to keep a drag racing machine going straight, or rather, get it back going straight after it’s gotten crossed up. Once, in 1962 at a strip in California, he completely went off the track before somehow getting back on course and beating his opponent.
“He’s really a legend in our sport,” Light said. “He’s seen the early days of hot rodding at mom and pop tracks, to the professionalism that it’s grown into today.
“He’s always been a showman, always been a fan favorite. The man’s just remarkable. I’ve watched him jump in and out of his car and he get can out before three-quarters of the guys half his age.”
In 2011, Karamesines beat NHRA stalwart Doug Kalitta in a first-round match at Thunder Valley in Bristol, Tenn. Karamesines drives a 2009 McKinney chassis with a TFX 500 engine, sponsored by Lucas Oil, South Oak Dodge, Strange Engineering and J.C.’s Pub in McCook.
“We’re still pretty decent,” Karamesines said. “We don’t have the money to back us like (bigger teams) do, but we can make some good runs. We’re hoping (this weekend) to qualify good and make some money. We make just enough to keep going.”
The next-oldest Top Fuel competitor this weekend is Ohio native Pat Dakin, who’s a pup at 66. The majority of the drivers in the field are in their 30s and 40s, with the youngest being Leah Pruett (24), Ashley Force (26) and Steve Torrence (29).
How many will still be NHRA racing when they’re 81? The next one will be the second one.
“You’ve got to want to do it to keep doing it. And we’re in pretty good shape,” said Karamesines, who passes an NHRA physical every year with flying colors, according to Light.
“I just keep working. I work every day on race cars and stuff I need to go down the road. I ride stationary bikes. That’s enough exercise. I also haven’t missed a year, and that makes a difference. If you’re out of it for 10 years or something, that might change your way of thinking.”
Karamesines, who said his sponsors have given him a lifetime commitment, plans to run between 12 and 14 NHRA events this season, including June 27 through 30 at Route 66 in Joliet.
Let the geezers wait.