That year, Bennie did not win his division, but through his qualifying effort was there on race day, where he waded through the elite field only to meet dangerous Don Prudhomme driving Lou Baney’s S.O.H.C. Ford powered dragster in the final. In a loss many say still rankles Prudhomme to this day, Osborn was first to the 1320 stripe, his 7.03 at 223.88 outpacing the Californian’s 7.12 at 222.76. With his win at the World Finals crowning Bennie as the 1967 Top Fuel World Champion, he then quit his full-time job at the local Chevrolet dealer so that he could do more touring (but returning there during the off-season’s winter months). For a more dependable tow car, he also bought a new 1968 Chevrolet Suburban.
1968 was even better than the previous year as Osborn won several meets, including the AHRA World Finals at Kansas City Int’l Raceway and prevailing again at the Atlanta $10,000. This time he was the Division 4 Top Fuel champ and didn’t have to qualify at the World Finals, but gave his local fans a thrill with two ferocious passes, setting low e.t. in qualifying with a 7.01. The six rounds he raced that weekend, the “Wizard’s” dragster performed like a bracket car, with elapsed times ranging from the weekend’s low of 6.99 in his first round win to a high of 7.08! Many of the packed crowd of 38,000 at Tulsa’s Southwest Raceway were calling the final against the Beebe & Mulligan car the “match race of the century,” but when the Fighting Irishman faltered during the run, Bennie Osborn became the first two-time NHRA national champion. That race also featured a bit of history for a sport that until then was not on the media’s coverage radar: for those drag racing fans unable to attend the World Finals there was a closed-circuit broadcast shown in theaters across the country, the first of its kind in this form of motorsports.
Bennie Osborn, relaxed and all smiles after recounting one of his many funny stories
from his days as one of the sport’s most popular drag racers.
Another well remembered event in 1968 also involved Osborn. Orange County International Raceway, opening the year before, had posted a $14,000 prize going to the winner of a special match race that would pit the two cars posting the quickest elapsed times during the previous twelve months. Osborn and hard charger, Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen were tabbed for the winner-take-all contest. The expectant west coast crowd was stunned when McEwen smoked his tires and the Oklahoman streaked to the biggest payday of his career. Even though it was heavily hyped as “winner-take-all,” McEwen did receive $1000 as runner-up.
Also in 1968 Bennie bought out Bill Beaman, a local chassis builder who had built cars for Bob Creitz, Dick Moritz, and several more over the years. After relocating the equipment, jig and fixtures to the garage at his Sand Springs home, he built a few front engine cars for Charlie McClintock and the Texas team of Ralph Lewis and driver Mark Collins, among others. His first rear engine dragster came off the jig in 1971, followed by ones he built for Steve Carbone and Bob Tilford. This next generation of the “Wizard” was a short 208” – built primarily to fit in his trailer. Osborn found it to be a handful with a learning curve, as other racers making the transition in engine location were also finding out. Using the same P&S steering box as in the front engine cars, the unit’s gear ratio proved too fast, as Osborn found out during a match race with Harold Wilson (whom he’d beaten at the 1968 AHRA World Finals) at Mo-Kan.
Clocking 197 mph in the traps, Bennie’s front end came up causing the car to drift toward the center. With the driver now in a different position and closer to the front wheels, he over-corrected and ran off the strip, crashing hard for the second time at the Asbury, Missouri facility. This time, with a cracked vertebrae and injuries to his neck, Bennie made the difficult decision to retire as a driver in the sport’s premier nitro class. During the wreck, Bennie’s blower pulley cut his shoulder harness, prompting the NHRA to mandate aluminum plates behind the cage to prevent this. It also helped lead to the realization that a different ratio was needed in this new chassis configuration to slow the steering, which P&S promptly complied with in a new model for the rear engine cars.
This is the re-creation of Bennie’s twin-engine “Brand X” car from 1962. It is owned by “Ugly John” Mullen,
owner of a Tulsa boat dealership and a muscle car museum.
Today, Osborn and Louise still live in the same house he bought over fifty years ago. Their son, Tony, has provided them with grandkids Ben and Victoria Elizabeth. Great-grandson Drake Allen may yet be the fourth generation gearhead in the family. The shop, with photos from his racing days adorning the walls, is located just around the corner from his house, and is where Bennie spends his days doing occasional mechanic and chassis work. Over the last few years two projects in particular have been close to Osborn’s heart: Building the replica of his early ‘60s “Brand X” twin-engine car for Tulsan John Mullen and restoring his last front engine dragster for another Tulsan, John Neas (who also owns Tony Nancy’s “Loner” and the re-creation of Jimmy Nix’s Kent Fuller car from 1965).
The “Wizard” in 2012 with his last front engine dragster on the jig being restored. The Woody Gilmore/Tom Hanna creation was almost complete when found, including the original 3-point roll cage which Bennie had just re-attached. John Neas, a Tulsa car collector and ex-drag racer, is now the owner of the beautifully restored AA/FD.
Sitting next to the jig is another of Bennie’s long-time projects and one that shows off his perseverance and fabricating skills – his 1973 Winnebago motor home. To provide more power, he extended the front end four feet and installed a big Caterpillar diesel engine. Proving too noisy at highway speeds, the resourceful Osborn removed the engine and new front extension, fabbing a complete cradle for the big powerplant in the rear and stretching the vehicle from the stock twenty-four to thirty-five feet in the process.
A familiar question asked of Osborn by magazine writers and fans at these events he occasionally attends concerns his World Finals wins at Tulsa being attributed to his familiarity with his home track’s surface. He now feels his wins at what was then called Southwest Raceway along with his many victories at other drag strips were simply due to his ability to read and “race the track.” When asked about his favorite tracks, he replied with: “The ones where you win!” He then quickly added Dallas International Motor Speedway as a great facility and way too soon the victim of a developer’s wrecking ball. His least liked? Corpus Christi (“the surface was always coming off”) and Oklahoma City, which, located near a river was universally called, “sand valley.”
In lessons that could be learned by every present day racer, when asked for his racing secrets, Bennie was quick to say that, unlike many present day teams, “I ran the same combination all the time, using what I had. Ran the pistons the same amount down. Never changed…” He also remembered a conversation with his friend and sponsor, Marvin Rifchin, when the M&H tire owner asked him what advice Bennie could give Jerry Ruth who was having trouble getting a bite on a slick track. Having run - and won - at many marginal tracks over the years, all Osborn could tell him was: “You have to do what you do…you are a racer!” Sage advice from an old “Wizard!”
NOSTALGIA DRAG WORLD - By Connell R. Miller; Photos by Connell Miller & courtesy of Bennie Osborn