Longevity Of Karamesines’s Career Only Adds To His Legend
His name may not fill the record books, but Chris Karamesines is just as much a drag racing legend as the competitors he raced against during the sport’s golden era — racers with names like Garlits, Kalitta, McEwen, Prudhomme and Ivo who have long since retired from competition.
Nearly 60 years after making his first passes at Half Day (Ill.) Speedway, the “Golden Greek” is still behind the wheel of his Top Fuel dragster, working out of a tiny trailer with a skeleton volunteer crew in the shadows of today’s multimillion dollar transporters and hospitality tents that fill NHRA’s nitro alley.
It was “the sport of making your car go fast down the street” that first lured the soft-spoken Karamesines into racing, though his initial foray into motorsports was as a stock-car driver at Chicago-area venues like 87th Street Speedway and Raceway Park in the early 1950s. Soon, though, the Greek tired of making constant repairs to his battered cars and, wanting to go even faster than he had on the Windy City’s dirt and board tracks, he turned to drag racing.
“The first drag strip I went to was Half Day, Ill., in 1952. That’s where it started,” Karamesines explains. “You go once, you go twice, you keep going.”
In those early days, he competed in the gas dragster ranks before teaming up with machinist-turned-tuner Don Maynard and switching to fuel dragsters in 1956, which included Karamesines’s famed Chizler creation that today is as fabled as its driver.
As his experience on the quarter-mile grew, so, too, did the Greek’s legendary status as tales of his driving prowess followed him around the country. In the years before walls or guardrails defined a facility’s racing surface, those stories told of his off-roading exploits, feats that would make even today’s circle-track competitors jealous, and only fueled Karamesines’s larger-than-life persona among his fellow racers, the fans and the media.
In one instance, at California’s San Gabriel Dragstrip in 1962, Karamesines drove off track, returned to the asphalt and still managed to beat opponent “TV Tommy” Ivo to the finish line. Another time during a match race at U.S. 131 in Martin, Mich., the Greek went off track and completed a 360-degree spin before driving his dragster back onto the drag strip. And at Lions Drag Strip in 1963, Karamesines defeated Don Prudhomme despite getting his Chizler completely sideways at the finish line in a 190-mile-per-hour pass.
Perhaps none of those instances are as legendary or have more to do with the Greek’s place in drag-racing lore than his 204.54-mph run at Alton (Ill.) Dragway on April 4, 1960. Highly contested by drag racing historians, Karamesines’s unofficial record-breaking run came some four years before the first documented passes of speeds greater than 200 mph. While Don Garlits is in the NHRA record books as the first driver to break the 200-mph barrier with his 201.34-mph showing Aug. 1, 1964, in Great Meadows, N.J., Karamesines has long contended that not only did he post the first 200-mph-pass that day at Alton, but he posted other 200-plus runs the next week in Kansas City, Mo., and in Phoenix in 1963.
Over the years, Karamesines collected victories with numerous sanctioning bodies, including IHRA, ADRA and AHRA, and his accomplishments include four wins in the World Series of Drag Racing in Cordova, Ill., record-setting passes at Bakersfield, Calif., and Famoso (Calif.) Raceway, and the 1959 AHRA Top Fuel world championship in Great Bend, Kan. The Greek has also been inducted into both the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame and the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America.
While he has never earned that coveted Wally for winning an NHRA event, Karamesines has reached the finals three times — the 1965 Springnationals in Bristol, Tenn., and both the 1990 the Le Grand Nationals in Quebec and the Northwest Nationals in Kent, Wash. Those two runner-up finishes in 1990 came in his only full season of NHRA competition, one that saw the Greek finish just 36 markers shy of the top 10 in class points.
These days, Karamesines, who admits to being “just a little over 80” years old, competes in a handful of NHRA events each season; in 2009 he qualified for six of 13 events and finished 18th in Top Fuel standings, 45 years after making his NHRA debut at the 1964 Winternationals in Pomona, Calif.
“It’s just fun being out here and if you can qualify, you make a little money to go to the next race. Every now and then you get lucky and the car runs good,” says Karamesines, adding, “It’s hard to compete against some of the big, four-car teams.”
Unlike the “mega teams” — the Don Schumachers and John Forces of the world that have multi-car teams and million-dollar sponsorships — Karamesines has never had a major sponsor for his dragster but has relied on backing from longtime friend Bob Stange of Strange Engineering, remaining the quintessential independent racer.
Asked what keeps him coming back season after season when his contemporaries have long since hanged up their helmets, the Greek points to “the enjoyment of (racing), having something to do and the people you meet around the country.”
So much has changed in the sport of drag racing since Karamesines came on the scene in 1952, but his desire to compete has not — “it’s in my blood,” he says — and he shows no signs of slowing down.
How much longer will he be a presence in nitro alley?
“That all depends on the money. If you can keep affording to do it and you get some help from guys who have been doing it for 50 years, that’s the only way you can do it, and help from other racers,” Karamesines says, referring to the crew members from other teams who often pitch in to help the Greek on race weekends. “Let them help you out if you need something and work with you. One thing about racers: They’ll help you out as much as they can.”
That’s a fitting turn of events for a legend who helped lay the groundwork for what drag racing is today.