NHRA: Golden Greek isn’t age-challenged as Winternationals celebrates golden anniversary

Chris Karamesines’ head may have never lifted up to look at his interviewer as he slipped rings on pistons inside his far too small trailer. He considered the questions like a Western cowboy, the kind whose hands are tattered by years of working on cattle fences, the kind whose answers come from years of riding the range.

But instead of riding a single horse, Karamesines rides 8,000 of them. A top fuel driver who is among those celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Kragen O’Reilly NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, the man known as the Golden Greek began his 58th season of professional racing.

Age? Well, apart from being a state of mind, Karamesines says he is “a little over 80.” This may or may not be in conflict with the National Hot Rod Association’s media department which says Karamesines is either 81 or 78, depending on whether he was born November 11, 1931 or 1928. Afterall, for a guy in his 80s, an extra year could be “a little over.”

But forget about the specifics for a moment and consider this: Karamesines is closer in age to John Wooden than John Force.

He goes into final eliminations on Sunday with a qualifying speed of 305.91 mph.

Think about that for a minute: Imagine Grandpa, whether 78 or 80 or 81, driving a dragster 305 mph over 1,000 feet!

Not only does he get to drive really fast, but he still has a full head of hair and a boss nickname. On the cool meter, he leaves Phil Jackson in the dust.

“As long as you’re feeling healthy and your physical condition’s in good shape, do what you got to do,” Karamesines says. “People run, people ride bikes, they do all kinds of stuff for entertainment. As long as they keep doing what they really like to do, it will all work for them.

“I enjoy the sport, and I have a lot of friends who watch me race and it gives me something to do other than sit home and watch TV, sit in a bar, so I’m having a great time and I like the people I’m dealing with.”

He has been racing since 1952, did a stint in stock cars on dirt tracks which helped him deal with some powerful sideways runs on the straight track that were far too slippery. His legend has been galvanized by tales of him going off track before guardrails existed in the sport, and by showing car control at a time when cars weren’t nearly so safe.

When the history of sport is written, Karamesines deserves consideration as the poster boy for flamboyance: In 1974, he put as much 24 karat gold as he could on a dragster, the roll bars, whatever needed covered. Think of it as expensive chrome. That’s how he got the nickname, the Golden Greek. Just imagine what a killing he could make today by popping a gold-plated roll bar into the mail these days.

“Chris is a legend,” said top fuel driver Cory McClenahan, a whippersnapper at 47 who qualified No. 1 on Saturday with a run of 3.787 seconds at 320.05 mph. “When I first started racing in the ’80s, he was killing them.”

Karamesines has won 14 American Hot Rod Association events and an NHRA divisional. But consider this: Even though he has never won an NHRA national event, such as the Winternationals, he was still selected No. 30 on the list of the 50 greatest drag racers that coincided with the NHRA’s 50th anniversary in 2001.

“He didn’t win a thing in NHRA competition, but from the sport’s 1950s beginnings through the 1980s, was the wildest, most entertaining driver ever,” Chris Martin, a long-time associate editor at National Dragster, said at the time of Karamesines’ selection.

A lifelong Chicagoan who worked in a machine shop, then gave up his own machine shop about 15 years ago – at retirement age – Karamesines has never given up the pursuit of speed. He races to keep racing, using money earned in qualifying to fund his next race, aiming at select events where he has the best chance of making the show. “We usually end up doing some match races, and run as many of these races as we possibly can,” Karamesines says. “We can’t afford to run them all, but we run as many as we can.”

Basically, he’s in it for the fun, for the good time, for what sport was about before it became corporate and demanding and the pressure got to be uncomfortable.

Besides Pomona and Bakersfield, Karamesines has a long history of racing on Southern California’s long-gone tracks such as Lions Raceway in Wilmington, San Gabriel Drag Strip in Irwindale and Orange County Raceway in Irvine.

These season-opening Winternationals mark his 58th year of professional racing. Force, the sport’s most recognizable figure, is considered an old man at 60. That makes Karamesines prehistoric, having seen the sport from its inception, when NHRA founder Wally Parks decided that racing should be taken off the streets into a safer, more controlled environment.

He has made a career of match races with some of the sport’s great names of the past, pitting his Chizler slingshot dragster againt Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, Connie “The Bounty Hunter” Kalitta, Tommy Ivo and Sneaky Pete Robinson.

Karamesines is so well-liked that other teams routinely give him second-hand parts to help extend his budget, but he also is smart with his money: He didn’t make a fourth qualifying run Saturday night, which probably saved his program about $3,000. He’s crafty and smart, McClenathan says, and he’s also something else: Karamesines can still bring it.

“These things are very fast nowadays, it’s over very quick,” McClenathan said. “If I had to rate him, I’d say he’s still an 8. He does very well. If I had to rate myself, I’d rate myself an 8.”

That says something about the respect Karamesines still draws from his peers even as he moves into his ninth decade.

When he draws up to the starting line on Sunday at 11 a.m., he will be lined up against six-time defending champion Tony Schumacher, the No. 3 qualifier. It’s a foregone conclusion that Schumacher will win. It’s the big guy vs. the little guy, the U.S. Army against Strange Engineering and J.C.’s Pub and Restaurante. But Karamesines will be there, just like he has been for the last six decades.

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One Response to “NHRA: Golden Greek isn’t age-challenged as Winternationals celebrates golden anniversary”

  1. He always has a good time. Just seems to enjoy life in general.
    A rare thing in the universe. 🙂

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