For someone who has raced boats at more than 215 mph and cars at more than 315 mph, it was a bit surprising when Jerry Toliver said one of the biggest thrills in his career was standing on a podium at the NHRA Motorsports Museum.
"Art Chrisman, my uncle and my greatest hero, was on one side of me, and Dale Armstrong, my crew chief and the man who masterminded Kenny Bernstein's record 300-mph run, was on the other," explained Toliver. "You can't get better than that.
"Beside Chrisman was the old No. 25 car he drove that was the first to break 140 mph, and beside Armstrong was Bernstein's 300-mph dragster. It made me feel like I was the link between the past and the present. For me to be standing there, between those two, was remarkable, I thought."
Toliver, as is the National Hot Rod Assn., is 50 this year.
Although Toliver, driver of the World Wrestling Federation-sponsored funny car, grew up in a racing environment, he has been a professional drag racer for only a little more than three years. He burst into the spotlight in the final race of 1999 by upsetting multi-champion John Force in the Auto Club Finals at Pomona.
"Hey, I've been a drag racer all my life, really," the third-generation driver said at his race shop in Riverside.
"Some of my earliest memories are of racing. My grandfather, Everett Chrisman, started it all with his sons, Art and Lloyd. I was 4 or 5 when my grandfather, they called him Pop, would come to our house in Compton, riding a big old Harley-Davidson. He'd put me up front, on the tank, and ride me to the racing shop in Willowbrook. You can imagine what a thrill that was for a little tyke.
"There were race cars all over the place and I felt like a kid turned loose in a candy shop.
"I remember going to races to watch Uncle Art and Uncle Jack [grandfather Everett's brother] race, as far back as I can remember."
Art and Jack are members of the NHRA Hall of Fame.
Art drove the first car to make a pass in the NHRA's first national event, at Great Bend, Kan., in 1955, and four years later, in his famed No. 25 dragster, was the first winner of the U.S. Fuel & Gas championship in Bakersfield.
Jack, who died in 1989, is considered the NHRA's first big-name star. In 1961 he won the inaugural Winternationals at Pomona and the NHRA top-eliminator championship. He also is credited with developing the funny car when he showcased Sachs & Sons' Mercury Comet, the sport's first nitro-burning funny car, in an exhibition.
"Art and my mother [Juanita] have always been very supportive of my racing and having the Chrismans as my uncles gave me instant credibility at the race track," Toliver said. "They are legends in the sport and mention of their name has opened doors for me."
Mom Toliver, as his mother is known around the NHRA, attends six to eight races a year, works in the race shop office three days a week and runs the Jerry Toliver Fan Club. One of her sons, Craig, is a member of the Toliver crew.
Uncle Art and his son, Mike, operate CARS (Chrisman Auto Rod Specialists) in Santa Ana, where they build and restore street rods.
"With that kind of background, I was into fast cars as soon as I could drive," Toliver said. "When I was 15 or so, I had a hopped up '56 Chevy II Nova that I would cruise out to Bob's Big Boy in Whittier and take on all comers. We'd go out to some industrial road late at night and go at it.
"I don't think I ever lost a street challenge. From there, I drove at drag strips in production classes, but by then I was into boats. Our family used to vacation at the Colorado River and Uncle Art bought a flat-bottom when I was 12 or 13 and I thought that was the ultimate, to run up and down the river. I started going to drag-boat races at Long Beach Marine Stadium and eventually I got myself a top-fuel hydro."
For five years, Toliver was a mainstay of the International Hot Boat Assn. circuit.
A violent crash at Puddingstone Lake in San Dimas in October of 1995 ended his boating career.
"Puddingstone was kind of rough and I hit a roller going through the lights and flipped upside down at about 214 [mph]," he said. "It broke the capsule off, which turned out to be fortunate for me because when the [safety crew] got to me, I was unconscious but the capsule was floating with me in it."
Toliver suffered a broken back and hand and took in a lot of water.
"I was out of the hospital in a week but it took me a year to heal up right," he said.
Like drag-boat champion Eddie Hill before him, Toliver's next move was from boats to cars.
"I bought a car from Gary Clapshaw in 1997 and decided to start right off running nitro funny cars," he said. "Even before I won a race, my car attracted attention because it was sponsored by MAD magazine. When the WWF decided to get involved with drag racing, we worked right in with their program.
"We have a great relationship with the WWF. One reason is that the demographic crossover is almost an overlay between wrestling and drag racing."