October 21, 1942 in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, James DiTullio was soon to be a
transplanted New Yorker by the family’s relocation to Grand Island, New York
when he was a young boy. Grand Island is an actual island carved out of the
massive northern landscape between Buffalo to its south, Niagara Falls to its
north and Canada to its east. The river that surrounds the island is the
waterway that creates the northeast access to Lake Erie. There the big kid known
as Puppet developed an affinity of tinkering with cars as a teen.
Before I go on, I guess it’s only fair to explain the nickname. When James (Jim)
was a teenager he would clown around by biting girls on the posterior. A playful
act that often ended up in a fight if that girl’s boyfriend happened to be
around to see it. Jim’s friends would encourage the act by saying, “Go bite that
one.”…and he would. For those acts, his friends said he behaved like a puppet,
so they started calling him ‘Puppet’. As the years went on, that is what he
became comfortable with and identified himself that way.
As a teenager Puppet got a job at the local gas station known as Marty’s Mobil.
The station was one of only two gas stations on the island and was located in
the middle of the island just south of the historic Buckhorn Island State Park,
which offers a view of the mist from Niagara Falls. In the small world of
motorcycle drag racing you would be surprised how many people from our little
circle passed through this little full service gas station. Gary Larson of
Stripbike.com fame (which contributed many of this stories details) also worked
at Marty’s with Puppet. Two of the frequent customers were future Pro Stock
master’s Paul Gast and Earl DeGlopper. The list could go on and on if I started
naming NHRA and NASCAR icons but for now we will keep it in our little circle
for the sake of time.
Marty Wolverton, owner of Marty’s Mobil, had a way of soliciting the
intoxicating rush of hot rodding into his teenage mechanics. There was an elite
fraternity called “Marty’s Club” which got its members access to Marty’s candy
apple red ’36 Ford Roadster, powered by a 327 Corvette engine. Puppet was
allowed to use the car to go on parts runs. I think it’s fair to say that
Puppet’s time at Marty’s certainly led to his eventual career choice.
At 6-foot, 4-inches and 315 pounds, Puppet was a lineman on his high school
football team. Oddly enough it was John Gast, older brother to Paul that got
Puppet started as an ironworker in 1964 building bridges. Both Puppet and John’s
first jobs were as tack welders on a bridge in Binghamton, New York. They both
worked for Paul’s dad, who incidentally is the guy who certified both his son
John and Puppet as a welders.
In those days, Native Indians were the guys who built bridges. It was said that
they were the only ones crazy enough to take on the death defying work of bridge
building, except of course John Gast and Puppet. One day Puppet thought it would
be fun to take a carload of Indians down the street to lunch in the back of his
’55 Chevy. The weight of too many guys in the back seat made the rear end drag
the ground creating sparks as they flew down the street. That only added to the
excitement for Puppet so he drove like a stuntman to their destination. When he
finally stopped the car they all jumped out and walked back to work. Pup would
make his own straight pipes for his cars. When he got pulled over by the local
authorities, because of loud pipes, he would say, “the muffler must have fell
off because of the bad road conditions.”
After spending a couple of years on bridges, Puppet moved over to an inside job
at Bethlehem Steel Mill outside of Buffalo where he would spend the next decade.
During his time at Bethlehem Steel, he worked on friends’ three wheel bikes,
dune buggies, motorcycles, streetcars, and racecars on the side. Eventually he
made the switch fulltime to fabrication and left the steel industry to open his
shop called Race Visions and soon his name would become legendary amongst both
the car and motorcycle racing worlds.
Puppet continued to work on anything on wheels and I wouldn’t be surprised if
there wasn’t a soapbox derby car or two in the mix. While Puppet had been honing
his skills as a welder through his ironworking career, a kid from Niagara Falls
wanted a Harley dragbike so Puppet built him one. At the same time, Paul Gast
had taken up motorcycle drag racing and saw the Harley Puppet built and wanted
Pup to build him a bike too. As Paul launched off into the NHRA Pro Stock class
he had Puppet build a chassis for his 2-stroke bike. That led to him building
one for Dave Schultz, Floyd Huntz, Jim Puglia, Pete Barnhart and many others. In
all Puppet built over twenty rolling chassis for Fast by Gast. Puppet always
said it was Paul who nudged him into bikes. After that it was all motorcycles.
One of Puppet’s crowning achievements, outside of his yet to come Top Fuel
success, was when Pizza John Mafaro dominated the NHRA Pro Stock bike class in
1989 winning almost all the national events and winning the Winston World
Championship on a Race Vision chassis.
I’ve only talked about chassis up to
this point but the frame was only half of what made Puppet’s creations
legendary. The eye-catching artistry of his work was the handcrafted aluminum
bodywork. The bike took on almost a cartoon appearance with his exaggerated
rake; ground hugging frame rails, low seat height and extra long wheelie bars.
His bikes were truly works of art.
England Top Fuel Legend, Brian Johnson
Top Fuel Harley Legend, Jim McClure
Top Fuel Legend, Larry McBride
Top Fuel Legend, Elmer Trett
Puppet has also been
credited with innovations in the sport. Steve McBride brought an idea to Puppet
to build a frame that had a removable backbone so that the engine could be
replaced quicker. Puppet ran with the idea and created a great engineering feat
that would become standard construction for future chassis. The McBride’s
chassis, as shown in the photos below, shows the joints made to enable the
removal and replacement of frame pieces without losing the structural integrity
of the chassis. The first chassis of this concept was that of Elmer Trett with
side rail joints. The McBrides chose for the backbone and siderails to have the
joints. What a timesaver for those short 90-minute turn arounds between rounds.
You can see in the photos below that by adding strengthening side rails were
only made possible if they could be removed. You can also see the complexity of
having to remove a motor without removal of the rails.
Besides starting to build a
reputation as a Class A chassis builder Puppet also had a reputation as a Class
A practical joker. When Paul Gast contracted Puppet to build his first 4-stroke
Pro Stocker, the day he showed up to take delivery of his bike, the entire bike
(frame, body wheels, everything) was painted pink. Puppet thought that was
hilarious. Sometimes Puppet’s practical jokes went a little too far. In a rare
appearance at race, Puppet showed up at an IDBA race in Louisiana where Paul
Gast was eliminated in the first round on Sunday morning. He said the bike was
spitting and sputtering like it was running on one cylinder. After removing the
bodywork he found what appeared to be a bomb wired in to the coil. It wasn’t
until Monday that Paul found out the Puppet rigged the fake bomb. Obviously
Puppet intended his little joke to be found before eliminations.
story told by John Alwine was when he and Mike Dryden ordered a chassis from
Puppet. He had not heard from Puppet in weeks so he called Puppet to inquire on
the progress and asked how it was coming and that he was excited to get it.
Puppet said, “It’s coming along good, do you want to come see it?” John said,
“Okay,” so he drove from far side of Michigan to Buffalo at Pup’s invitation.
When he got to Race Visions he saw no bike in the shop. He asked Puppet where it
was. Puppet pointed to a pile of pipes and metal stacked against the wall and
said, “I told you, you could come see it, I didn’t say it was done,” as he
laughed hysterically. That was just the kind of guy Puppet was.That same joke
was pulled on more than one person, but one day it didn’t go so well as told by
customer and former Funnybiker, Dennis Strickland. He said Puppet told him that
one day, a guy came in with a gun and demanded his chassis. Puppet, like most
chassis builders, was slow to deliver his product but this guy was more than a
little upset. Puppet, as usual, pointed to a pile of pipe in the corner and said
“there’s your chassis.” The guy was mad and said, “I’ve waited a long time for
this chassis and should just shoot you.” In classic Puppet style he replied, “If
you shoot me how long do you think it’ll take you to get it?”
In 1984 an incident happened that was to start a new chapter in Puppet’s life.
At the NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis, Indiana one of the leading Top Fuel
Motorcycle racers, Elmer Trett crashed his bike off the starting line. Paul Gast
suggested that Elmer take his bike back to Buffalo to his chassis builder to fix
the frame and he did. What Puppet found out is that Elmer’s bike had been built
utilizing only front axle adjuster bolts; there were none on the backside. On
the pass Elmer crashed, the chain jerked the wheel forward and the bike started
to go side-to-side and high sided him. Puppet checked it for straightness and
put axle adjusters front and rear so that wouldn't happen again. The rest of the
infamous Mountain Magic series Top Fuel bikes Elmer owned were all built by
Puppet. On Elmer’s first trip
to Buffalo, an immediate bond was made with two eventual giants of the sport and
a friendship that would last
until the day Elmer died in another crash at the same race that brought the two
together twelve years later.
Focusing back on the glory days, Elmer and Puppet’s friendship and success in
Top Fuel started a movement in both the import Top Fuel and Top Fuel Harley
worlds. As much as Puppet became close friends with Elmer, the same kind of
friendship can be said for other legendary racers like Jim McClure (pictured
below), Mac Thrasher, Larry McBride, Korry Hogan, England’s Brian Johnson and
more. To this day, it’s Puppet’s chassis that hold the current ET and Mile Per
Hour records in Top Fuel via McBride and Hogan.
As part of the many people I spoke
with while writing this story, it was former islander and legendary Pro Stock
crew chief Earl DeGlopper, who said what he admired most about Puppet. It was
the influence Pup had on a large number of people in all forms of racing. So
many people got their start in fabrication because of what they learned from
Puppet and he was more than happy to teach anyone willing to learn. Some of the
list includes: Mike Bos of Chassis Craft in Bristol, Tennessee who builds record
setting Comp Eliminator cars and lots of other cool stuff; Joey Hoffman, who
runs Penske’s NASCAR chassis shop, Joey also started Red Bull’s shop and began
his Cup career at Yates, post Puppet; Dick Oldfield of Mopar fame, from way back
in the Motown Missile days; Walt Pryzbyl, owner of PRZ Technologies, a very high
tech machine company and the current NHRA Funnycar Crew Chief of Bob Bode; Dave
Klocke, another Grand Island master fabricator who now works on Paul Gast’s
bikes; Jim Zakia, gasser great from Niagara Falls; finally Big John Torrelli,
Pro-Mod chassis builder and that just scratches the surface. Many others got
their start and were Puppet pupils. Puppet was very generous with sharing his
knowledge. His craft will live on through his many apprentices who are now the
Did I mention was the sports greatest illustrator? Back in the early fax machine
days Puppet would burn up Elmer Trett’s and Bill Hahn’s fax machines with almost
daily cartoons. He was practically a Charles Schultz cranking out the daily
funnies. Puppet himself was the main character in most of his drawings. Most of
the ones I ever saw were a depiction of his dislike of turbos. Something that he
surely learned from Trett and McClure.
On October 18, 2010 at the age of
67, Jim “Puppet” DiTullio sucumbed to a lengthy illness at the Niagara Falls
Memorial Medical Center. A month later at the Manufacturer’s Cup race in
Valdosta, Georgia, a tribute to Puppet was performed at the request of the
family. In a tradition carried over from the landspeed gurus of Bonneville,
Puppet’s remains were packed into the parachute of Korry Hogan’s Top Fueler and
released at over 200mph in the twilight of the evening. A picture perfect
setting with the bright header flames arcing over the tail section of the bike
as the sun was going down, which was Pup’s favorite time to watch Top Fuel
Bikes. At the end of the day Puppet’s brother Dick DiTullio said it best when he
said, “It has been said that when it thunders Elmer Trett and Jim McClure are
having a match race, now when it is lightening we can say that Pup is striking
an arc from his welder.”
Fast forward to present day, this story is to also serve as the unveiling of an
artistic tribute to Puppet’s skills as a master fabricator. Last year Doug
Frierson, of Funnybike and SEMDRA fame, purchased one of Puppet’s creations from
former Funnybike favorite Dennis Strickland of Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Dennis rode
the bike competitively until the Prostar Rebel Nationals in Atlanta in 1998.
Although several top Funnybike competitors had already ellipse the six second
and/or 200 mph barriers, Dennis had not yet achieve either milestone. An ongoing
and self-inflicted bet had brood between Dennis and myself as President of
Prostar. Dennis kept telling me that when he finally ran a six second/200 mph
run he would let me cut off his waist length pony tail and goatee. Dennis was
and is a true son of the south. His long hair and goatee along with his long
southern draw is reminiscent of a Civil War confederate.
On March 29, 1998 Dennis had been
struggling with his bike, barely qualifying the day before in the 15th spot.
Terry Kizer, of Mr. Turbo, suggested that he back the waste gate screw all the
way out. The power was more than the starting line could handle giving Dennis a
terrible 60’ time but it recovered and started hauling the mail. Dennis ran the
pass of his life, 6.96 @ 207 mph. Terry was in the next pair of bikes and
couldn’t wait to get to Dennis to give him the good news. Dennis said Terry came
flying to the end of the shutdown area so fast he thought Terry was going to run
over him. Dennis said Terry looked like a flat tracker on a Funnybike. Terry
slid the bike sideways to a stop to jump off his bike to tell Dennis what he
ran. Our dad was at the end of the track, as usual, and it was a big
celebration. Dennis said he would never forget that day.
A bet is a bet so out on the
starting line in front of God and everyone, Dennis allowed me to cut off his
hair at the shoulders. I spared his goatee because he had just trimmed it so I
knew it was painful enough losing all that hair. The whole event was a captured
by the late Larry Myers and aired on Motorworld that week. The downside to the
weekend is that on that pass the cam chain broke at about a thousand feet and
destroyed the valve train. It was beyond repair and Dennis’ day was done. Can
you imagine how quick the bike would have ran had it had a good 60’ and ran the
whole quarter mile under power?
Dennis and Jan took the bike back home to Tuscaloosa. By the time repairs were
made a couple of races had passed and the season was too far gone. The
Strickland’s parked the bike in their dining room where it would remain for the
next twelve years.
In December of 2010, just two months following Puppet’s death, Doug Frierson
received a call from Dennis who said, “Doug, Jan and I want you to have the
Funnybike.” Doug had always loved the bike but had one of his own that was
collecting dust. When Doug first saw Dennis’ bike in 1992 he took his Kosman
chassis and had Puppet make a body for his to look like Dennis’ bike. Puppet
also tried to talk Doug into using a parachute on the bike but Doug wanted
nothing to do with that.
Doug ended the phone call with
Dennis by politely putting him on the backburner. After a couple of days of
realizing that the Puppet bike was his dream bike, Doug called Dennis back and
said that he wanted the bike. Then Doug paused and asked Dennis, “Why do you’ll
want me to have it?” Dennis said, “I haven’t forgotten about what you did for me
at the Memphis race in 1993.” Doug had to ask, “What did I do.” Dennis replied,
“You took parts off your bike and left it at home in Georgia and brought the
parts to me in Memphis as my back-up parts and we ended up winning the race, you
didn’t have to do that.” Dennis continued to tell Doug it was at that point that
he realized that their friendship ran brotherly deep.
With the help of chassis builder, Walt Timblin, the trio set out to restore the
twenty year-old Funnybike to its original condition with an updated paint job to
mimic Doug’s roots of his “Leatherneck Express.” The project is very sentimental
to all three men.
The Race Visions Funnybike was originally built in 1991 and debuted by Dennis in
1992. Dennis said throughout the whole building process and beyond, he never met
Puppet but talked to him so often that he felt they were age-old friends. To
build the bike, Puppett would call and have Dennis sit in a chair and get in a
riding position and have Jan make measurements for the seat, hand and feet
Once Dennis took delivery of the bike, he fit it with a 1260cc Suzuki power
plant with a Star Racing head, a Mr. Turbo turbocharger, Performance Machine
wheels, MRE lock-up, Orient Tranny, BHP magnito and Hillburn fuel pump given to
him from former Funnybiker Charles Israel. Reed Hightower did the original
paint. The motor and fuel system was the same combination Dennis had on his Pro
Comp, which was sold to Rickey Gadson prior to Puppet building the Funnybike.
One of the cool things Puppet included on the bike was the axle adjusters. They
came off Pizza John Mafaro’s Pro Stock bike complete with the PJ name. Puppet
would call Dennis every time he won a race or posted big numbers. Though they
never net face to face they were good friends via phone and fax.
In April following Dennis’ call to Doug, Doug took possession of the bike from
Dennis and brought it back to Georgia. After a thirteen-year hibernation he
placed the starter on the bike and brought one of Puppet’s creations back to
life. Soon the disassembly process would begin. From the beginning the project
was taken on not only by Doug but a host of other passionate members of the
racing community who admired Puppet’s art and wanted to see it revitalized.
All of Puppet’s handcrafted aluminum body pieces were carefully removed, crated
and shipped off to Mike March at Color Concepts in Clearwater, Florida for
paint. Former Funnybike pilot Steve Tracey at Advance Plating started working on
all the chrome parts. Walt and his son, Stuart ,extended the rear blocks 3” to
better fill the original body wheel tub but meticulously maintained the stock
Puppet look. They reproduced the cuts with manual hand milled blocks to look
just like Puppets. They also installed a few more mounting brackets and a
fairing with a control shelf to replace the original headlight bucket. Walt also
replaced the original 26-pound, 10-inch rear wheel with a lightweight 12-inch RC
Component Aurora wheel with a matching front wheel. Walt said at nearly sixty
years old, he feels like a rookie when it comes to the chassis greats like Sandy
Kosman and Puppet. It was a true honor to work on this piece of art.
Doug’s friend, Tim Mcray kept everything on schedule by continually bugging Doug
to keep things constantly moving. The next step was to carry the engine to Jerry
Cooper, of Cooper Performance, who freshened the motor up which included an
Accurate Crankshaft, Robinson transmission, and MTC Lock-Up. Pro Kote in Indy
did the internal ceramic coating. Toby Malphurs at Star Racing worked on a
header mold and sent all the pieces to Steve Rice who built the fuel injection
system. Wheeler Machine and Fabrication made some additional brackets and mount
modifications. Then the chassis was sent to Southern Powder Coating. Doug
meticulously reassembled the bike with all new nuts, bolts, screws and all other
parts deemed necessary.
The totally restored bike finally
got what Puppet suggested a couple of decades ago. A Stroud Safety Equipment
parachute mounted to the wheelie bars. The final touches came at the hands of
Enhancement Signs in Leesburg, Georgia who lettered the bike and handed it over
to Phil at www.photophilonline.com to provide the pictures you see below. This
is the resurrected art of Jim “Puppet” DiTullio. Doug wanted to make sure we
thanked Jan and Dennis Strickland for entrusting him with ownership of their
pride and joy. The plans are to do exhibition runs along with three other
nostalgia Funnybikes being brought back to life as well.
The above restoration was done as a long-term tribute to the man who changed the
look, the dynamics and dedication to motorcycle drag racing. His daughter,
Jaimey said that it was his drawings and his welding that took him to a place of
happiness. It wasn’t until Puppet got sick that he realized how truly talented
he was when he couldn’t make it work anymore. She said he told her once that it
was his pure love and interest in what he did that kept him from realizing how
good he was. It came so natural to him that it wasn’t about the money. Puppet
had a hard time charging people what he should have because he was truly
generous. Jaimey said her dad loved speed and racing. He mastered the drag bike
legacy without ever racing himself.