By John Hufcut
Not long ago, we were wandering around Las Vegas and ran into Big Al Heisley. So I sat down for a conversation with the man who started Fuel Coupe Magazine and who was instrumental in starting our little hot rod news and thought magazine here at Nitro Hot Rods Magazine.
If you don’t know Al Heisley, you are missing out on one of the great storytellers of the Drag Racing sport. People who know me know that when I say Big Al is one of my heroes know that it is not something I’m doing to make an interview article sound better. It is just the truth! I would love to tell some exotic tale claiming we met in the South Pacific during World War II but that’s not the case. Al and I met before Fuel Coupe Magazine came into existence. He was working on getting the magazine off the ground and I was running long-haul rigs throughout the western states. I had taken the weekend off to attend the 2013 World Finals. I’d been getting back into photography and was itching to give Pomona a try. I spent the weekend having a great time. After Langdon qualified on Friday, effectively winning the NHRA Championship for 2013, I walked around the pits shooting anything and everything.
On Monday after the race, I started posting pictures on my Facebook account. Then, not long after my first posts went up, Big Al messaged me and told me he liked my shots. After going back and forth with Al, he asked me if I’d like to try shooting for Fuel Coupe. I responded that I’d love to give it a try. When the Winternationals came around, I was there with credentials; a dream come true.
NHRM: Big Al…..how are you today?
AL: I’m great, Jim. Thanks for stopping me.
NHRM: You’ve been around Drag Racing for more than 50 years, why do you like the sport so much?
AL: I think it’s for the same reasons most fans do. The competition, the smell of nitro and tire smoke and the speeds these cars reach in an incredibly short period of time. I also love the personalities of the racers and the fans. They’re a real collection of characters. But more than that, it was a sport that I wanted to get involved in myself. I wanted to be part of a team and be part of something greater than myself. A sport that I related to, was challenging, and fun, too.
NHRM: What was it got you to go to the track in the first place?
AL: Back in 1964, a high school friend, Jack Schaefer and I were talking about partnering to build an A/FX car. Jack was 18 or 19 and I was 16. I’d loved drag racing for some time and had been to a couple of races and knew Jack as a legitimate racer. Anyway, I spoke to my parents about it and they decided to put up my share of the money needed to build the car, buy a transporter, get tools, fuel, etc. In 1964, my share was $5,000 and Jack’s was $10,000. Hard to believe, isn’t it? Dick Harrell built our first car. Bud Fabel also put touches on it. In 1966 Pete Seaton and Jay Howell changed it from a carbureted 4-speed car to an injected nitro beast with a TurboHydro automatic. Tim Richards handled most of the mechanics. Lots of good memories.
NHRM: How did you get started as a drag racing writer/editor?
AL: Good question. Over the years, after Schaefer and I parted ways, I’d been involved with a couple of other teams. Most notably Chet Rickard’s ProComp dragster. During that period, I learned that I was happiest when I was behind the scenes or working on the business end of things. I also liked driving the transporter or truck and trailers. I was not a mechanic. With that knowledge, I knew that I still wanted to stay involved in the sport so after a gap of a few years, I put together a story for RPM Magazine that they liked enough to publish; my first submission. With that confidence, I began submitting stories to other publications. And with a growing number of published writings, I was on my way.
NHRM: When you and I met you were getting Fuel Coupe started. What’s that story?
AL: I’d known Kenny Youngblood for several years. We spoke almost daily. One day we were having lunch in North Las Vegas and he starts telling me about his idea for an online magazine he’d had in mind for several years that he wanted to name Fuel Coupe Magazine. The magazine would be exclusively about Nostalgia Nitro Funny Cars mostly in NHRAs Heritage Series. Kenny laid out his ideas for the format and summed it up asking me to be the magazine editor and his equal partner in the effort. The next day I called him and said that I’d love to get in on the deal so we, in essence, shook hands and moved forward.
NHRM: Fuel Coupe was somewhat revolutionary; what were some of the things that made it work for the amount of time that it did?
AL: For sure having Kenny’s name on the cover was huge. That and he lent his talent and time to make it come together and work. I was putting in 16 and 18 hour days getting stories, interviewing people, editing, arranging for photographers, posting results during racing events and everything else that came with the job. Between the two of us, our plates were very full plus Kenny was busy painting. To our credit, I feel that we did a pretty good job.
NHRM: There were a lot of things that started dragging it down. While it was a great magazine it seemed to lose steam after roughly two years. What are some of the things that went wrong in your opinion?
AL: There were several things with the two biggest issues being that we were under financed and understaffed. Advertising sales were dismal as there were not enough hours in the day. Another problem was that we didn’t have an understanding of social media and the power of it. All-and-all, however, we could have continued if we had stayed on the same page. But we didn’t. Something I’m as responsible for as anyone.
NHRM: Would you like to comment on the recent Youngblood interview Hot Rod Magazine ran.
AL: Sure, for the most part, I liked it. It told a condensed version of Kenny’s public life. What did disappoint me, however, was that Kenny didn’t mention that others were involved in producing Fuel Coupe Magazine – not the writers and the photographers; not the Webmaster nor designers; and not this editor/business partner? It may have been his idea and even a passion of his, but others were involved and just as passionate as he was. Sour grapes, yeah, a little I guess.
NHRM: I know that the success of Fuel Coupe was a dream you both had. What are the things a Drag Racing magazine should be?
AL: So many things go into a successful magazine, Jim. I’d say it must be accurate, informative and timely. I tried to always keep the reader in mind; what he or she wanted and how do we get it to them. And it has to be fun. When it isn’t anymore, it’s time to move on. Those are just a few points that come to mind quickly.
NHRM: You have a wonderful wife in Sally. Can you tell me about her and what she does to and for you?
AL: Sally’s a great girl who’s always there for me. She knows me well and understands me. I can always count on her. Plus she has been a drag racing fan for as long as I have.
NHRM: I’d like to know your opinion about IHRA dropping back to door slammers and parking the nitro cars?
AL: It’s really too bad they’ve found themselves in the position that they appear to be in because they had a great pro program; they put on a great show. No one really knows what the future holds for them but I hope they put something like what they had back together again soon.
NHRM: Do you like the Heritage Series?
AL: Yeah, sure. What’s not to like. Like any undertaking, they have some issues to be dealt with but those are nothing that can’t be corrected. I’m just not sure they want to!
NHRM: Do you want to venture an opinion on what I call the Flashback Camaro body?
AL: As for NHRA’s Heritage Series, the powers-to-be say it’s good. It is what it is and the rules say so.
NHRM: In all of time, living or dead, who would be in the ultimate final round in funny car?
AL: Oh, man! I don’t know. Maybe me and Jungle smoking the tires in unison in front of a packed house at Maple Grove! Yeah, that’d be great!
NHRM: Do you have an all-time favorite driver, and car owner?
AL: Joe Amato. Ace Manzo, too.
NHRM: Of all the races you have ever seen; do you have one that stands above the others?
AL: #1. It was immediately after Chris Karamesines crashed at Gainesville when he and his team kept people away from the wreck so they could safely gather all the gold-plated parts that had scattered over the crash site!
#2. Another standout run was Garlits breaking the 200 mph barrier at Island Dragway in Great Meadows, NJ.
#3. Bernstein’s 301.70
#4. The fourth greatest was “The Run.”
#5. And then we have Clay Millican’s emotional win last weekend. One of the greatest wins I’ve ever seen!
NHRM: What’s your opinion of Bill Doner’s UNFC? Is it helping NFC racing?
AL: Yes and it’s about time!
NHRM: You are in charge of Special Projects at Nitro Hot Rods Magazine. Do you have any plans to keep going to the races and seeing your friends from time to time?
NHRM: In the dark of the night, when the moon lights your way; what would you like people to remember about you?
AL: That I was a good guy who loved people and drag racing. That I wanted to help and that in my way, I did.