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Drag Racing is a Family Affair for LaHaie : With His Daughter's Help, He's Driving for the Title

January 27, 1987|SHAV GLICK | Times Staff Writer

Ever since Wally Parks and some friends took hot rods off the street and organized a sport called drag racing in the early 1950s, it has been pitched as a family sport.

Sometimes it has been, and sometimes it has been a family breaker-upper. But today, in the ranks of top-fuel drivers, family is definitely the in thing.

Shirley Muldowney, the three-time world champion in the second year of a remarkable comeback, has her son, John, as a key member of her crew.

Darrell Gwynn, everyone's nominee as a future world champion, has his father, Jerry, as his crew chief.

But the most unusual case is Dick LaHaie, a long-time independent driver from Lansing, Mich., who is coming into the 1987 season with a big-bucks sponsor and his first realistic shot at the world championship.

LaHaie's crew chief is his 26-year-old daughter, Kim.

Until this year, when LaHaie can finally afford the luxury of another hand--son Jeff, 28--Kim was not only the crew chief, but chief mechanic and the entire crew.

"Kim came to work for me in 1982 and seemed so ideal in the job that I sold my business in 1983 and the two of us went racing full time," LaHaie said. "Sometimes I feel like we've made it work on sheer willpower.

"It's amazing how much Kim and I seem to think alike. It's almost like we're two people thinking out of the same brain."

During the off-season, LaHaie, 44, replaced Gary Beck on Larry Minor's Miller American team, assuring the Michigan veteran financial support this season. For the past few years, LaHaie was one of the few drag racers making a living off what he earned in competition.

"This is a dream come true for Kim and me," he said. "We have always felt we could compete if we had the proper financial backing, but my first rule has always been never let my ego get in front of my wallet.

"Earning a living is one thing. Winning a championship is another. This year, we hope to be able to do both."

LaHaie has wanted to be a drag racer for as long as he can remember, clear back to when he was 11 or 12 and ran across a copy of Car Craft magazine with pictures of those funny looking hot rods.

"I was so tuned to speed that I took apart my folks' lawn mower, changed the exhaust system and a few other things so it would go fast. I wanted to mow the grass faster than anybody on the block.

"I read everything I could find about drag racing. Guys like Emery Cook, Don Garlits and the Greek (Chris Karamesines) were my childhood idols. Drag racing was all I ever wanted to do. Even when I had my own business, I was still racing on the side."

Kim LaHaie, on the other hand, has tested many waters. She grew up around her dad's garage, but she had her own ideas of what she wanted. In nearly each new venture, however, Kim drew on her innate mechanical aptitude.

At 12, she had her own motorcycle, and she spent as much time tearing it down and rebuilding it as she did riding.

When she started racing motocross, there was no class for girls, so she raced against the boys. She found out early that they didn't relish the idea.

"They seemed to enjoy shoving me around and knocking me down," she recalled ruefully. "One time I was down and a couple of guys ran right over me."

At 16, she got her first car, a '71 Vega, which she immediately took apart and tried to make into a little hot rod.

After high school, where she had been an all-star basketball and softball player, she left Michigan to "do my thing" in California, settling in San Jose, where she had an aunt.

"My first job was driving a water truck for a construction gang," she said. She got the job because she was the one who could keep the truck running.

"Once you get the hang of how an engine works, it's all relative," she said casually, putting some of the thousands of parts in place on one of the $40,000 engines that power her dad over a quarter-mile strip of asphalt at better than 260 m.p.h.

"There's not all that much difference between engines in a motorcycle, a water truck or a dragster, except that there's a lot more parts in one of these."

Dick is justly proud of his daughter's talents. He likes to tell a story of how she repaired the carburetor on her water truck by telephone.

"I got a phone call from Kim one day from San Jose wanting some help. She told me the problem, and it turned out to be the float in the carb. She'd never worked on one before, but I talked her through it, telling her what to do with each piece. It must have taken 15 minutes, but when she called me the next day and said it was running, I was really proud of her."

After a couple of years in California, Kim decided to go back home and help her father with his race car.

"When she said she wanted to go to the races with me I thought she'd probably sell T-shirts and hand out photographs to fans," LaHaie recalled. "But she got in and worked right alongside my crew chief."

In 1982, shortly before the U.S. Nationals, the most important event of the National Hot Rod Assn. season, LaHaie's only crewman abruptly quit.

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