You know the cliché. Prophecies of Sabbath-day drag strip scripture booming from a voice that sounds like its owner injected human growth hormone directly into his larynx.
As the originator, Jon “Thunderlungs” Lundberg recites it better than anyone. A 2008 International Drag Racing Hall of Fame inductee, the sizeable 70-year-old leans toward you — eyes aglow, arms suddenly outstretched, voice booming just loud enough for effect.
“Sunday, Sunday, Sunday! Detroit Dragway! The world is coming to an end! Yes, the Red Sea will part!”
What rippled my coffee as it rested on Thunderlungs’ Oro Valley table started in a Lansing, Mich., garage nearly 60 years ago: That first hotrod, spied by Lundberg and a friend cruising the neighborhood.
Lundberg recalled every detail of that car like a first girlfriend, mentally running his finger down the fender for the first time:
’32 Ford Coupe, chopped three inches, light metallic blue. Two seats from a Jeep. Red Ford steel wheels, white sidewalls, Moon hubcaps. Red Ford flathead V-8, Edelbrock heads and carbs. Clamshell hood, single row of louvers on each side. Five gauges in the dash…
Enter addiction. The two buck-toothed kids picked the mechanic’s brain and drooled on his tires until they scored a downtrodden ’36 Ford pickup. Their new idol helped them swap out the blown engine and make it run.
For a crowning touch, the pair pooled five bucks apiece to buy 48 chrome valve cover nuts.
“We put those things on there, and we were hot rodders,” Lundberg said.
Lundberg adopted the local hotrod scene and its legends, who graciously tolerated his “stupid, repetitive, nonstop questions,” explaining minutia in simple terms — like what speed really meant, and how sweeter camshafts could achieve such.
Calling his first races on an unpaved Central Michigan Dragway during 1954, he’d use those same layman’s brushstrokes to paint the crowd an afternoon.
“That’s what made me a value in the sport — that I could explain what was going in terms that people could understand and relate to,” Lundberg said.
By the time an aftermarket shifter company hired Lundberg to produce drag strip records with primitive three-track recorders, he’d been dubbed “The Voice of Dragracing.” A buddy figured that was too clunky for someone who could overdrive primitive PA systems with a single breath.
And so one afternoon in a garage, he was knighted “Thunderlungs.” It was the last nickname Lundberg would receive — and most of the others would upset our readers.
After his trademark Sunday proclamations saved his promoter’s business — and his own paycheck — the Sunday proclamation was copied by DJ’s nationwide, as Thunderlungs’ voice competed with bored-over big blocks and the screech of fat Mickey Thompson tires.
The early days of drag racing, didn’t appreciate baby-faces like Lundberg as experts though. Guards would hassle him at the gates while he was expected in the roofless timing tower.
One afternoon, some Texans left a Stetson behind in a local speed shop where Lundberg loitered before an event. Balding early, he popped the hat on — pleased that it fit and made him look older.
“I’d just get killed on Sundays,” Lundberg said, of his sunburned dome. “I’d come home looking like a lobster.”
Image cemented, Lundberg morphed into what he calls the “Willie Nelson of drag racing,” an unconventional soul whose booming reputation preceded him. For eight years, the roadways flashed in his sunglasses from event to event, 42 weekends a year — covering up to 2,000 miles per outing.
Ever the dynamo, John’s energies earned him a small tribe of children during his first marriage. That union would eventually blow a gasket, as he spliced road and domestic life onto 40-hour weeks running the family’s manufacturing plant.
“I needed the money, because there were these six kids and 10 gallons of milk a week,” Lundberg said.
But he remarried five years later to his current wife, Sandra, and gradually eased into producing aftermarket parts in Southern California, before relocating years later to Oro Valley.
Times have changed in racing since Thunderlungs’ heyday. Lundberg estimates the entire drag racing industry drew about $5 million when he began announcing in 1955.
Last year, it was worth $30 billion.
“I had the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time,” Lundberg said. “I wanted to be a part of the sport, and it drove me like heroin drives a drug addict — and
there ain’t no 12-step group going to get rid of it.”
But for the un-retireable and Lundberg, who now appraises exotic and vintage automobiles for Southwest Valuations, there’s no “old rock star” bitterness about the current motorsports scene — despite his perceived lack of its “Last Man Standing” romance.
He’s content surrounded by icons of Oriental spirituality — dragons and Kanji — in his home office, rather than the crate load of racing memorabilia now housed in drag racing museums.
“Is racing better than it used to be?” Lundberg proposed. “The crowd votes, and the crowds are up.”