Old school drag racing fans know him simply as “The Greek.” While many men his age are content to sit on the front porch, enjoy retirement life and swap war stories with the grandchildren, Chris Karamesines, 84, can’t stay away from the spotlight, the glory — and the nitromethane.
True to his old school “SUNDAY, SUNDAY, SUNDAY!” roots, Karamesines confirmed this afternoon via telephone he was on his way to Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Illinois to compete in this weekend’s AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals.
The oldest active driver in the NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series, Karamesines’ driving career spans 66 seasons, dating back to 1950.
Chicago driver has ties to Alton, Illinois and drag racing’s first-ever 200-mph run
In an era when a 200-mile-per-hour top speed on a quarter-mile drag strip was thought by many to be unattainable, Karamesines eclipsed that elusive mark in April, 1960 at the now-defunct Alton Dragway in Alton, Illinois. The Alton strip (1958-1972) was only 20 miles from Gateway’s “old” drag strip, which debuted in 1967. Although the analog clocks were not certified, it is widely accepted The Greek’s 204-mile-per-hour odyssey down Alton’s narrow ribbon of blacktop is the sport’s first 200-mile-per-hour run.
Karamesines and his dragster, dubbed “The Chizler,” blazed a smoky trail to drag strips across the country, from New York to California and all points in between.
He won his first major title in 1959 by claiming the World Series of Drag Racing at Cordoba, Illinois. Later that year, he won the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) world championship at Great Bend, Kansas. Karamesines made his NHRA debut in 1964 at the NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, California.
No plans to slow down — or retire
He once told veteran sports writer Jerry Bonkowski, “If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me when I was going to retire I’d be a millionaire. If I have any trouble, I’ll get out and have someone else drive it.”
In an era where there were far fewer NHRA national events, drivers traveled the country together, booked into match races on local tracks. Embarking on barnstorming schedules that would wear out a carnival worker, The Greek might race on a Thursday night in a match race against fellow legend “Big Daddy” Don Garlits in Buffalo, New York*, then hop the border to drag in Toronto, Ontario, the next. Those classic, hyperventilating drag racing radio commercials of the 1960s were not complete unless they touted an appearance by The Greek and his Chizler. It was a colorful, no-holds-barred time in the sport when “The Snake” (Don Prudhomme) took on “The Mongoose” (Tom McEwen) and Don Schumacher’s “Stardust” battled “Jungle Jim” Liberman. He was a constant draw and a promoter’s dream.
The winning continued, with yet another AHRA world championship in 1985. The World War II veteran retired from Top Fuel Dragster racing from 1993 to 1999, then recharged The Greek moniker and hit the trail again. To date, his best elapsed time is 3.897 seconds and his best top speed is 310.63 mph.
Earlier this year, his granddaughter, Krista Baldwin, raced in the Top Alcohol Dragster class on the same track as grandpa at an NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series event in Concord, North Carolina.
No doubt at least one parent at the track on Sunday afternoon will tell his son, “I saw him race long before you were born.” One of The Greek’s ancient Chizler dragsters is on display at Don Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida. But don’t expect to see Karamesines leaning on the roll bar swapping tales. He’ll be at the track, packin’ the chutes, lightin’ the tires — and thrillin’ the fans.
— John Bisci
*He did, in fact, in April, 1973, beating Garlits in a best-of-three showdown on Lancaster Dragway’s narrow eighth-mile track.
Tickets for this weekend’s AAA Insurance NHRA Midwest Nationals may be purchased at the track, by telephone at (618) 215-8888 or online at www.wwtraceway.com. Follow GMP on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram.
SCHEDULE FOR THE AAA INSURANCE NHRA MIDWEST NATIONALS
Thursday, September 22
6 p.m. — NHRA Fanfest and driver autograph session at Ballpark Village in St. Louis at Busch Stadium. (6-7:30 p.m.)
Friday, September 23
11 a.m. — Midway opens.
2:15 p.m. — Pro Mod qualifying session.
2:45 p.m. — Pro Stock Motorcycle and Pro Stock qualifying session.
3:30 p.m. – Funny Car and Top Fuel Dragster qualifying session.
4:45 p.m. — Pro Mod qualifying session.
5:15 p.m. — Pro Stock Motorcycle and Pro Stock qualifying session.
6 p.m. – Funny Car and Top Fuel Dragster qualifying.
7:30 p.m. – Track closed.
Saturday, September 24
10 a.m. — Midway opens.
1 p.m. — Pro Mod qualifying session.
1:45 p.m. — Pro Stock Motorcycle and Pro Stock qualifying session.
2:30 p.m. – Top Fuel Dragster and Funny Car qualifying session.
3:45 p.m. – First round of Pro Mod eliminations.
4:15 p.m. — Pro Stock Motorcycle and Pro Stock qualifying session.
5 p.m. – Top Fuel Dragster and Funny Car qualifying session.
7:30 p.m. – Track closed.
Sunday, September 25
9 a.m. — Midway opens.
10 a.m. — Pre-race ceremonies.
11 a.m. – First round of Top Fuel Dragster and Funny Car Eliminations.
Noon – First round of Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle eliminations.
12:20 p.m. – Second round of Pro Mod eliminations.
12:45 p.m. – Second round of Top Fuel Dragster and Funny Car eliminations.
1:15 p.m. – Second round of Pro Stock Motorcycle and Pro Stock eliminations.
1:30 p.m. — Pro Mod semi-finals.
2:15 p.m. – Top Fuel Dragster and Funny Car semi-finals.
2:33 p.m. — Pro Stock and Pro Stock Motorcycle semi-finals.
2:40 p.m. — Pro Mod finals.
2:45 p.m. — Sportsman finals.
3:30 p.m. — Pro Stock Motorcycle and Pro Stock finals.
3:37 p.m. – Funny Car and Top Fuel Dragster finals.
Schedule subject to change.