‘Face to Face’ with Ed ‘The Ace’

By Cindy Gibbs
Photos Provided By Cindy Gibbs

As a kid growing up in the world of drag racing, Funny Cars were always my absolute favorite.  Long, smokey burnouts, ground pounding dry hops, a hell of a lot more ‘show’, plus an undeniable sexiness to the cars and the drivers.  These guys were ROCK STARS in my eyes, I was in total awe.  Yet aside from the occasional introduction from my dad, the stars of the sport felt unapproachable…in hindsight, it was probably best I kept my distance.

facetoface_071416_01One of those characters that stood out the most to me was Ed ‘the Ace’ McCulloch.  I have literally known who ‘Ace’ was my whole life; I’d heard many stories about him and damn, he looked intimidating.  Interestingly enough, Ed and I never actually met until about 9 years ago during a tour I was given of DSR.  Well aware of the challenges he was going through at the time, I wanted to say hello and offer a friendly smile.  His reputation as a ‘bad ass’ was still firmly intact, but I knew his inner strength was being tested both physically and emotionally…a kind word seemed like the least I could do for someone I admired so much.

As life would have it, our paths crossed again early last spring at a time when both of us were entering new chapters in our lives.  Turns out we had much to offer each other, most importantly, love and understanding.  As this past year has flown by, I have learned much about this man, some unexpected and pleasant surprises, including his insistence on calling my dad before we went out on our first date.  As I’ve stated many times, my affection for him is rooted in respect; with all that he’s lived through, he’s earned that and then some.

Now, everyone LOVES a good ‘Ace’ story, who, as Bobby Bennett stated, “is known more for landing a punch than winning Indy six times” (five of those in the Funny Car class, more than any other driver in US Nationals history), but I’m here to tell you, there’s more to him than that. There’s the ‘Ace’ you think you know and then there’s the real deal. 

Al Heisley approached us about sharing a few stories with Nitro Hot Rods Magazine…I think you will agree that beyond that tough exterior, Ed ‘the Ace’ has a heart of gold.

CG:  Alright, Ace…ready to chat?
Ace:  How long’s this gonna be?

…yeah, we’re off to a good start, LOL…

CG:  Let’s go way back.  You and I were talking the other day about when you first started going to the drags.
Ace:  My dad had a ’56 Buick.  Because I grew up on the farm, as a ‘farm kid’ you could get your license at an early age…I think I got mine when I was 14.  We lived in Visalia; my dad had a place outside of town in Goshen, where he ran cattle.  I used to have to go out there to work; the drag strip was at the airport not too far from there.  I do remember the first race that I actually ever ran a car; I was supposed to be disking the walnut orchard.  I took my dad’s car; I’d actually put open headers on the thing.  I went out to the farm and got my work started and then hauled ass over to the airport; I get underneath the car, open up the headers and went through inspection.  I hot lapped it, just during qualifying; I made as many laps as I could make.  Then I take off… (we’re both laughing).  I never raced, I just went and spent a couple hours running time trials and then I’d have to go back to work.

CG:  Wait a minute…you were 14???  Wow, you’ve never told me that (still laughing…)
Ace:  Might have been 15.

Ace earned his first trophy in 1957; looking at all his trophies still leaves me speechless.  The first time he brought me to the house, I took two steps into his office and started to cry…and giggle at the same time.  I do that a lot.

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CG:  Tell me about H.L. and Shirley Shahan…as luck would have it, they were your neighbors?  (Shirley is the very first female to ever earn a Wally at an NHRA National Event)
Ace:  When we moved from the farm and into Visalia, Shirley and H.L. lived down the street from us.  I can’t really remember exactly how we got acquainted, I was in high school at that time.  I know that Shirley used to go to church with my mom, she’d had her daughter Janet by then. The Shahan’s had a black ’57 Chevy that started Shirley’s racing career; H.L. was a mechanic; this was in 1958.  Not long after that, they got a ’58 Chevy Biscayne, named ‘Red ‘n Ready’, that Shirley drove in Stock Eliminator…I got to runnin’ with them.  Jack Boudakian was a childhood friend; he and his two older brothers, Charlie and Harry, ran an altered on fuel, so I was around that and those guys.  The Boudakian’s were farmers; in the summertime, I’d help Jack out in the vineyards. The Shahan’s played a big part in my first race car, along with Bob Brown, Larry Rhody and Jack…I was the youngest of the group.

CG:  So Shirley and H.L. saw something in you…kinda took you under their wing, so to speak?
Ace:  I don’t know if they could ‘see’ something in me or not.  I think H.L. realized my interest in racing, their family became my family and vice versa.  When Stevie Shahan was born, if Shirley would need to go do something, I’d grab some diapers and take him cruising with me down Main Street.  It was a good chick magnet, all the girls wanted to look at the cute little kid!  So, Stevie was sort of like a son; years later, he actually went on the road with me when I was running the funny car.  I love the Shahan family dearly.

CG:  Tell me more about the early days.
Ace:  The early days…I mean; money certainly plays a part in every aspect of it.  H.L. and I used to go around town and pick up scrap metal from machine shops and take it to the scrap yard and sell it, just to get enough money to buy parts.  Anything we could do to get what we needed.  Back then, if you won a race, you could get a trophy or a $25 bond…if you cashed the bond you got like $18.50.  It was a passion we had, there was no money…it was a love, a burning desire to do what we did.  If you could get a local drive-in or auto parts store to pay for your gas to go to the races, that was a big deal.

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CG:  So let’s fast forward to the early 1970’s, you’re on the road, match racing your funny car.  It’s hard for us to imagine life now without cell phones.  I mean, this is your full time job, racing…so you are literally on pay phones?
Ace:  (Laughs) I mean, you pull into a gas station and while you’re filling up the rig and you get on the pay phone!  There were lots of times you had to stop and pull off the highway to make calls…booking races or ordering parts, ya know?  You could put off calling home until night time, sometimes; you had to call to get your race dates booked and parts ordered during certain hours!

CG:  Lots of bologna sandwiches?
Ace:  No…weenies.  A loaf of white bread and a pound or two of weenies from the meat market wrapped in white paper, some Coke and we’d head on down the road.  Probably not even any mustard!
Once we started generating a little money, sponsorships started to come into play.  Nobody really knew all the things that we did, people thought of us as dirty, grubby, biker guys.  As sponsorships got bigger, all of a sudden the things ‘you do’ become more of an issue, so yeah, the money’s better but the fun starts to go away.  Not that we didn’t have a great time, we did…thank God Facebook didn’t exist, LOL

CG:  What was your typical winner’s purse back then?
Ace:  It varied, maybe $800-1200 for a 2 out of 3 match race, up to $1500, maybe.  Every promoter had his own way of doing things.  On the west coast we weren’t worth very much, because we were local guys.  So when we went back east and made a name for ourselves, all of a sudden the west coast promoters, namely Bill Doner…we were now more valuable to him.  Now we could get more money out west.

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CG:  I’ve heard you mention that (Tom) McEwen was very helpful to you back then.  Can you elaborate on that?
Ace:  Mattel had made Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen household names.  Obviously, they were big early on in the match race world, and back east is where you wanted to be.  You could run as many as 5 days a week on the east coast; more races, more money.  You could race at two different tracks on the SAME DAY back there…you wouldn’t even have to warm the car up; it was still warm from the race you just came from.  You just put fuel in it and change the oil and go up and make your run!  But we weren’t as well known as the Snake and Mongoose…what’s a Whipple and McCulloch?  We were at Al Bergler’s shop one day, in Mt. Clemens, Michigan and McEwen came in and asked how we were doin’.  I told him “we’re not doing very well; I think we might have to go home”.  Goose asked why and I told him we were having a hard time getting bookings.  Tom got on the phone with some people he was working with and opened some doors for us; had he not done that, I don’t know what would have happened.  My life could have gone a completely different direction.  So I do, and always have appreciated the help Tom gave us; I give him credit for us being able to stay back there, makin’ a living.

CG:  Snake gets a lot of attention, and he should…but McEwen’s contributions to the sport are almost immeasurable.
Ace:  (Nodding)

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CG:  You know how much love and respect I have for Linda and her memory…you were married for close to 48 years.  Can you share a little about the support she gave you during your career?
Ace:  First off, it’s not impossible, but it’s improbable to be successful and to do what we did without having a supportive spouse.  Linda and I got married in December 1966; she worked, I was working on the farm with my dad and trying to run a top fuel car part time.  We didn’t get thrown into a full time racing career until 1970, when Art Whipple and I put all of our funds together and built the Whipple and McCulloch funny car.  I can’t say that Linda at that point really loved it or it was okay and she just put up with it.  When we first got started, we couldn’t afford for her and all the kids to come to every race; Jason was a baby and with Kelly and Chip in school, she stayed home most of the time.  When we raced locally, she would always come to the races, selling t-shirts and helping our team.  When I was racing on my own, it was probably always a bit of a struggle.  Even when we were doing okay, we weren’t financially on top of the world.  In order for me to continue my career, we made a decision in 1984 when Larry Minor, who was working on putting a deal together with Oldsmobile and Miller Brewing, came to me and offered me the seat in his funny car.  All I knew about Minor at the time was that he and Gary Beck had won the TF championship and all their equipment was BITCHEN.  Larry asked Linda and I to come to Hemet so we could talk about a deal; he threw out an offer that wasn’t what I was expecting, my heart sank. When Linda and I went to bed that night, I told her “I can make more money driving truck than I can doing this deal…it’s just not enough”.  Linda’s words to me were “This may be your last kick at the cat.  If you wanna try it, we’ll buckle our belts and tighten everything up, we can see if it’ll work”.  She was the one who encouraged me to accept the offer, which I did the next day.  As it turned out, the deal was better than I initially thought it would be.  I drove for Minor for 10 years…we had had a great run.
Linda was a big part of my racing life and as time went on, she got involved as one of the founding members of DRAW, the Drag Racing Association of Women.  She and Lynn (Prudhomme), Joan (Gwynn), Jere (Amato) and Holly (Beadle)…she was of that group, that era…they all became friends and that made it better for her.  Probably from that first night at Minor’s…I don’t know if it was that I looked at it differently from then on, but she was more involved and supportive than she ever really had been.

CG:  On the whole, wouldn’t you say it’s underestimated, just how much impact the women have on their husband’s careers and what they put up with?
Ace:  I mean, you pick one, Lynn Prudhomme, is a perfect example.  She and Don, I know they struggled in their early years, it was tough.  She went on the road with him…she was a HUGE part of his success.  Years later when I went to work for Snake, Lynn was a driving force of the operation.  Joan Gwnn was a very involved with Jerry and Darrell’s careers.  Jere Amato too…the women have all played a big part in the guys’ successes.  Now I’m not saying that any of those guys couldn’t have made it on their own, but from my point of view, the fact that Linda was there and supportive and wanted to help me, it made my life a whole lot easier.

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The 1993 season was the last full year of driving for ‘the Ace’.  After a few stabs at driving for other owners, Ace switched hats and became a full time crew chief after getting a call from Dick LaHaie asking him to come work for the Kalitta team.  The new millennium found Ace working for Don Prudhomme; he was with that camp through 2004.  Ed ended an amazing career at Don Schumacher Racing after 6 seasons with the Ron Capps Funny Car.  It’s been very rewarding for him to see the ‘kids’ that he’s worked with and mentored, watching them advance and become the leaders in the sport today…no one more so than his son Jason, an apple who did not fall far from the tree.  Jason is now assistant crew chief on Brittany Force’s Monster Energy Top Fuel car, he’s previously worked for Larry Minor, Joe Gibbs, Don Schumacher, Alan Johnson and Bob Vangergriff; impressive, to say the least.  Other very successful ‘kids’ Ed’s worked with include Jim and Jon Oberhofer, Nicky Boninfante, Tommy Delago, Joe Barlam, Donnie Bender, Mike Green, Todd Smith, Ronnie Thompson, Ron Douglas, Todd and Scotty Okahara, to name a few.  Again, the word ‘impressive’ comes to mind.

CG:  When you made the decision to retire…was it hard to walk away from the life you knew?  At 68, you’d literally been on the road for 40 years.
Ace:  I retired at the end of 2010.  Our struggles actually started in 2004, that was the beginning of a very tough time for us.  Linda was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and then in 2005 and again in 2006, I had my bout with cancer.  Her illness wasn’t really a problem at that point, but I was very concerned about what the future was going to bring.

CG:  Did you consider retiring at that point, when you got sick?
Ace:  No

CG:  Not at all?
Ace:  No…no.  When I got my cancer deal…I mean, I’d get out of chemo and go get on an airplane.  I think that helped me get through what I was going through personally; yeah, I didn’t feel good, it was hard.  But to get on the airplane and think about what we needed to do on the car, it was best not to be sitting in an easy chair thinking about how hard it was and how bad I felt.  My mind was on other things and it helped me get through that.  (During his six months of chemotherapy, Ed missed only one race…one.)

facetoface_071416_07At that point in my life…the uncertainty of everything.  I mean, I’ve got colon cancer, the majority of people die from colon cancer.  Linda’s got Alzheimer’s.  When I asked the doctor, “What’s the life expectancy with Alzheimer’s?”  “Six to ten years”, he said.  So now here I am, I’m a cancer patient, she’s got six to ten years left.
I’ve always been the kind of person who has a direction, not always sure how I’m gonna get there, but I know where I’m going and I’m working on that.  All of a sudden, that didn’t matter anymore.  What matters is today and tomorrow and I really didn’t look beyond that.  It brought my focus in from the future to now…’what are we gonna do NOW?’.
I enjoyed what I did, everything I did as a crew chief, I liked it.  All the mechanical workings of a race car, I was probably more comfortable as a crew chief than as a driver.  I never really intended on being a driver, those weren’t my intentions in the beginning.

CG:  You know I totally believe you survived your cancer so that you could be there for her.
Ace:  When Linda got sick, I really didn’t know what to do.  The way I looked at it, she stood by me through the good times and the bad times and I’d made a promise to her to take care of her, no matter what and for as long as I could.  As she got worse, I knew that at some point we needed to go back to California.  Even though she was from Oregon, she always liked it here and the kids were close by, I knew we needed to be back here…California was home.

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CG:  I can’t even imagine what everyday life was like…I’m always humbled by that thought.
Ace:  At Schumacher’s, it’s a great organization, Don was always very good to me.  But it came time to make a decision as to what I was gonna do and I wanted to be back in Central California.  We sold the house in Indy and moved back here 2011.  Taking care of Linda…I mean, life as I knew it was over.  I’m not gonna do the things I used to do, I don’t go to the races, I didn’t WANT to go to the races.  I had a very select few people I associated with; life as I knew it was never going to be the same.  Linda passed in September 2014…at that point, I didn’t know what I was gonna do; I knew I didn’t like being alone.  Coming back to California was a great decision because my kids and grandkids are here, including my oldest daughter Mischelle and her family, who I’ve been able to reconnect with after all these years.  I’ve also been catching up with a multitude of lifelong friends who I haven’t seen in a really long time…that’s been good.
The biggest and most obvious change in my life was meeting and connecting with you early last year.  It became a whole different world for me.  Our life together is good; LIFE is good again.  We do things, we have taken a few trips and we have a lot to look forward to; I’m starting to look further ahead now than I used to.  You are big change in my life, you’ve made a big difference….I guess we were meant for one another.  You’ve had struggles in your life; we can now throw our struggles away, hold hands and go on down the road.

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…yes, I had tears in my eyes at this point.  Honestly, I feel it’s really unfair that it’s not Linda who’s here with Ed at this time in his life, she’s the one who put in all the hard years with him.  All I can do is try to take good care of him, as he does for me, while honoring her and her memory.  We have beautiful pictures of Linda displayed in our home, I look at them daily. Okay, let’s lighten up a bit…

CG:  You and I watch a lot of golf.  (David) Faherty does a deal in his interviews he calls ‘Rapid Fire’.  Wanna play?
Ace:  Sure…

Favorite Drink?
Vodka and Tonic

Favorite meal?
Prime Rib or Mexican

Favorite Golf Course?
Eagle Springs (…it’s where we live)

Top Fuel or Funny Car?
Funny Car

1000′ or 1320′?
1000′

Favorite Track?
Indy…only because I’ve won there so much

Legs or breasts?
Breasts...thighs if you’re talking chicken!

Blondes or Brunettes?  (giggling…)
Both!

Favorite Funny Car you drove?
Revellution…blue

If not a professional drag racer, what do you think you would have done for a living?
There was a time I thought I might be a farmer like my father, maybe a cattle rancher…

What about you would surprise people?
That I can be pretty mellow and kick back…now.  (more giggling…)

CG:  Looking back, would you change anything?
Ace:  I’ve said this many times…I mean there’s a lot of things that I did that I shouldn’t have done and things I should have done and didn’t.   I used to apologize to my kids because I wasn’t there for their functions while they were growing up.  Fortunately, they never held that against me, because they understood I was just trying to make a living…and I really appreciate that.  Spending time with them now is very rewarding, the hard work paid off.
Would I change anything?  There were times in my life that I probably wasn’t a great person, and some of those things bother me, the way that I was at times.  I would try to correct that, just to be a better person.  Would I go be a rancher vs. being a drag racer?  Probably not.  Would I change that?  Probably not.  Was it easy?  Definitely not.
I’ve had a good life, I’ve had a great life, drag racing has been very good to me, I’ve been very, very fortunate.  Everybody has a God given talent, a gift they’re born with and what I’m better at is the mechanical side of things.  Figuring things out…that’s my niche.

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CG:  Yes, yes it is.  Thank you, Edwin
Ace: You’re welcome, Cynthia

I must admit, I’ve fallen in love with the guy all over again during this project…it’s kind of hard not to.  He has been to hell and back; much of what he’s been through would bring most people to their knees.  To strangers, it might not seem like we are a good match.  Twenty years my senior, I grin at the dirty looks I get from older women, pissed off at me for dipping into ‘their pool’.  But, I believe if you really know us, you understand that we are perfect for each other.  Clueless to his age, just last night we were at an event that was, let’s say, attended mostly by 65 year olds on up.  He looks at me as we’re walking in and says, ‘We might be the youngest couple here!’.  He was dead serious.

Ed and I go to the movies fairly often; he likes to tell me he’s been to the movie theater more in the past year than in his entire life.  On one of our dates, we had gone to see ‘the Revenant’.  At one point during the movie (if you’ve seen it, you’ll know which scene), he leans over to me and whispers “Ain’t nobody THAT tough…”

Maybe, Ace.  But to many of us, you are. facetoface_071416_11

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