Other Motorsports Series:
• United Drag Racers Association Champion (1970, 1973, 1976)
He’s the only person in NHRA history to win Top Fuel championships as a driver and a crew chief. LaHaie captured the 1987 NHRA Top Fuel title as a driver and four more as crew chief for Scott Kalitta (1994, 1995) and Larry Dixon (2002, 2003). The Michigander also drove to three United Drag Racers Association titles (1970, 1973, 1976). LaHaie retired from driving in 2005 with 15 NHRA Top Fuel wins. LaHaie scored his first major victory at the 1980 Summernationals. In the early days, he would sometimes dig through trashcans for parts the top teams had thrown away, then go out and beat them with their discards. His 1987 TF title was won with daughter Kim as his crew chief. Said the NHRA upon LaHaie’s passing, “In a long and distinguished career in drag racing, LaHaie proved himself of championship-caliber on numerous fronts.” LaHaie was No. 31 on NHRA’s 2001 list of its 50 Greatest Drivers. He was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2003.
By Jon Asher
When an individual is inducted, we read great stories about their victories and championships, and that’s as it should be. Former NHRA Top Fuel driver and championship-winning tuner Dick LaHaie, who passed away at 76 in 2018, earned high praise for those accomplishments, but it was the path he took to the top that shouldn’t be glossed over, for it was his formative years in drag racing that molded his skillset.
Like so many, LaHaie’s interest in cars began at a young age, but we have neither the space nor inclination to elucidate those long-gone rides. What counts are the lessons he learned and the races he won on the Midwest United Drag Racers Association (UDRA) Top Fuel circuit among others. With his daughter, Kim, and son, Jeff, turning the wrenches and learning alongside their dad, the trio absorbed a master’s-level drag racing education on some of the nation’s bumpiest, shortest and darkest racetracks.
Maybe you’re thinking, So what? It’s, well, everything. The majority of today’s drivers have never experienced one of those nightmare facilities. LaHaie arrived at the top level with the kind of experience no number of national events alone could deliver. Tires about to go up in smoke? LaHaie had the soft throttle foot and ability to grab the brake handle to stop it before it began. Air density just changed 1,500 feet, and everyone’s scrambling? Not the LaHaie’s. No panic, just a tweak here and there, and another winning round.
A stunning crash at the 1975 Gatornationals almost left LaHaie incapacitated, but he recovered from a badly broken right arm and temporary dismemberment of his left hand to not only race again, but to win, and win frequently—15 NHRA Top Fuel victories in all. LaHaie’s recoveries became the stuff of legends, especially after being injured again when his brand-new front wheel fairing-outfitted dragster crashed at the ’76 U.S. Nationals.
In 1984, LaHaie named his daughter his crew chief, a move unprecedented at the time. They quickly became crowd favorites when word spread to the grandstands that Ms. LaHaie was really making the tuning calls. She would go on to a very successful career of her own after her dad retired from driving, while Jeff found success in other areas.
Three years later LaHaie captured the 1987 NHRA Top Fuel title thanks in no small measure to the five races they won that season with backing—finally—from a major sponsor and team owner Larry Minor. One wild rumor about LaHaie’s last days behind the wheel is that Kim had fashioned an aluminum brace for his injured arm, which he donned prior to pulling on his fire suit. That’s been confirmed by eyewitnesses, but even if it weren’t true, it’s a great story!
LaHaie remains the only person to win NHRA Top Fuel titles as a driver and crew chief, tuning both Scott Kalitta (1994-1995) and Larry Dixon Jr. (2002-2003) to back-to-back championships. It may have been years earlier, but it was the days that LaHaie spent at backwater tracks that not only made him a champion but gave him the knowledge to guide others to titles under his direction.
Jon Asher is the former editor of five drag racing-related magazines. In 55 years of writing and photographing he’s received two Special Recognition Awards from the All-Star Drag Racing Team, the Founders Award from the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame and AARWBA’s Straight Shooter Award.