No. 30: Chris Karamesines
What Chris Karamesines lacks in NHRA national event wins (none) he's more than made up for in near-mythical tales generated during a six-decade career. Equipped with a fearless driving style that was largely influenced by his stint behind the wheel of stock cars on dirt tracks in the early 1950s, "the Greek" has probably saved more runs in his popular series of Chizler dragsters from full-throttle wheelstands or completely sideways launches than any other driver would dare claim.
Throughout the 1960s, tales of Karamesines' bravado spread across the country to create one of the quarter-mile sport's first larger-than-life legends. During the early and mid-1960s, before guardrails were introduced, Karamesines often went off the track, only to resume the run under full power and occasionally win the race.
In the minds of many, Karamesines was the first driver to exceed 200 mph on April 4, 1960, with a clocking of 8.82 at 204.54 mph at Illinois' Alton Dragway. Don Garlits, Frank Cannon, and others who were among the first to break the double-century barrier did not do so until 1964.
In terms of longevity, Karamesines has no peer. At 73, "the Greek" tops all other drivers on the circuit in terms of chronological age and years on the circuit. As retired Ramchargers driver Jim Thornton puts it, "He was old back when I was driving in the 1960s."
Karamesines apparently is putting all that experience to good use as he recently recorded his first four-second run, a 4.924, to qualify for Top Fuel at NHRA's O'Reilly Nationals in Houston March 22-25.
"It didn't really feel any different than the 5.0s I've run before," said Karamesines. "It's just another number. What I'm still looking forward to is my first run over 300 mph."
Whether "the Greek" surpasses 300 mph, he's already accumulated enough lore to make himself a permanent entry in drag racing's history books. At Yellow River Dragstrip in Georgia in 1961, when he was just 33, Karamesines' parachute failed and he went off the end of the 1,000-foot track and into a heavily wooded area under power. Except for a few weeds in the header pipes, his car was relatively undamaged.
In 1962, while racing at San Gabriel Dragstrip in Southern California, Karamesines went off into the dirt in a race against Tommy Ivo only to return to the asphalt and reach the finish line first. NHRA Vice President and Director-NHRA Motorsports Museum Steve Gibbs said, "I was at the race, and I couldn't believe what I was seeing."
At California's Lions Drag Strip in 1963, Karamesines' Chizler got completely sideways at the finish line in a 190-mph win over Don Prudhomme's nearly undefeated Greer-Black-Prudhomme entry and managed to keep the car upright without rolling it.
The first midtrack powerstand encountered by "the Greek" took place at Lions in 1964 on his debut outing with a new Kent Fuller-built car. He never lifted and went on to record a low eight-second clocking at 185 mph.
In 1965, while match racing at U.S. 131 in Martin, Mich., he went off the track, did a complete 360-degree spin, then drove his car back onto the strip and through the lights under full power.
Of his driving style, Karamesines said it probably developed during his stock car racing days on dirt tracks in the early 1950s. "I raced at Raceway Park and on 87th Street [in Chicago], and driving those things would help you really develop a seat-of-the-pants feel. You'd slide into the corners, spinning the tires, and develop an entirely different set of reflexes.
"It was never my intention to drive a dragster recklessly or just try to thrill people. I think the dirt racing experiences helped me. We ran a lot at Lions, and we knew that its close location to the ocean would develop dew on the surface when we raced late at night. That would make the tires spin more and caused the car to get sideways. I was able to save a lot of runs because I had more experience with that.
"I went off the track at San Gabriel while racing Ivo because of the smoking tires and because the front-engine location blocked my vision. At no time on the run did I feel I was driving over my head. I think the reason that I got known for the wild races back then was that all of the racing press was located in Southern California, and, of course, they loved stuff like that."
Among Karamesines' more memorable career highlights are his 1959 AHRA Top Fuel world championship in Great Bend, Kan., and his No. 1 qualifying effort of 7.99 at the 1963 Bakersfield Fuel & Gas Championships, the first seven-second run in the history of the event. He ran Famoso Raceway's first 7.8-second pass a year later at 7.84, again good for low e.t.
Other triumphs included four at the World Series of Drag Racing in Cordova, Ill.; Great Lakes Dragaway Olympics in Union Grove, Wis.; 1966 AHRA Nationals in Smithfield, Texas; 1972 AHRA Marathon Nationals in Rochester, N.Y.; and ADRA World Finals in Spokane, Wash., in 1984 and 1985. He also held the coveted Drag News No. 1 spot in Top Fuel for the last half of 1963, taking it from Art Malone in July and holding it until his loss to the Weekly-River-Fox-Holding Frantic Four entry that December.
When the Funny Cars took top priority at match races in the mid-1970s, Karamesines concentrated primarily on the AHRA circuit and select NHRA national events. Longtime friend Bob Stange of Strange Engineering backed Karamesines during the 1980s, but "the Greek" basically remains an independent racer. His best season on the NHRA tour was in 1990, when he ran the full schedule of events, with Strange's support, and finished just 36 points out of the top 10.
Karamesines takes pride in the fact that he's never had a job other than racing Top Fuel.
"I just plan to keep on driving as long as it's fun. Then there's that first 300-mph run that's still out there. The first guy I'm going to call is my old friend, Don Garlits. He's never run a four or gone over 300. I want to tell him, 'If you're the first one to break 200 mph, you want to break 300.' " - John Jodauga
Comments from the panel
"He didn't win a thing in NHRA competition, but from the sport's 1950s beginnings through the 1980s, was the wildest, most entertaining driver ever. He was 'Jungle Jim' before there was a 'Jungle Jim.' He [is credited by some as] the first driver over 200 mph, and the oldest pro nitro finalist in sport history." -- Chris Martin
"The Greek" was the finest "pure" dragster driver to ever sit behind the butterfly. He could feel a car better than anybody and was so far ahead of the car's moves and tendencies, he made it look easy, at least a lot easier than it really was. His famed 'Chizler' dragsters and legendary grudge races with Garlits and Kalitta in the '60s stamp him a true drag racing hero." -- John Drummond
"The 'Golden Greek' continues to drive his Top Fuel dragster at an age where most men are content to sit quietly on the front porch. Chris Karamesines continues to amaze drag racing fans across the nation." -- Jim Hill