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In NHRA victory lane, it's always Wally World


This is how John Bisci, the longtime Las Vegas Motor Speedway media expert and drag racing enthusiast, describes the NHRA Mello Yellow Drag Racing tour:

“Everybody wants to go home with Wally.”

(That would include Courtney Force, who recently posed without her parachute for ESPN The Magazine.)

Wally is short for The Wally, the golden trophy awarded to winners in the nitromethane traveling circus.

The Wally stands 12 inches tall. About as tall as G.I. Joe with the Kung Fu grip. (With the solid walnut base, it rises to 18 inches.) It also weighs 12 pounds. It is constructed of a composite-standard metal mix. Mostly zinc and aluminum. The plating is antique brass, which I’m told is the best kind.

The American Trophy and Award Company on South Michigan Avenue in Chicago manufactures The Wally. They also will sell you one of those engraved desk clocks that says your company was No. 1 in the scrap iron drive.

The Wally made its debut in 1969. It is named for Wally Parks, the late NHRA founder. A lot of people think he also modeled for it. Not true. Nor was it Tony Dow, the actor who played Wally Cleaver on “Leave It to Beaver.”

A friend of Parks, a racer named Jack Jones, posed for The Wally during a meet at Pomona, Calif., during the flower child days.

Jones, I think, was the first guy to beat Bob Falfa’s ’55 Chevy from the fire roads to the interstate on the outskirts of town. He had fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor.

“It’s obviously an award all the drivers covet — not so much for what it is, but what it represents,” said Tony Schumacher, The Sarge, the seven-time Top Fuel Dragster champion. “I’d like to grab a bunch of them before I’m done.”

He already has grabbed a bunch. He has grabbed 72, three this year including the spring race here.

Just 65 more, and he’ll catch John Force in Wallys won.

Provided Force doesn’t win any more.

Force, the uproarious former truck driver from Los Angeles County, has won 137 Wallys heading into today’s NHRA Nationals eliminations at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Roughly 136 are on display at his race shop in Brownsburg, Ind., northwest of Indianapolis.

He has a very long mantel in his race shop.

Force usually takes one of his Wallys with him.

“Most of mine are at the shop, but I always carry one with me on the bus,” said the 64-year-old legend, who was won the Funny Car title 15 times and narrowly leads 30-year-old whippersnapper Matt Hagan in the race for No. 16. “When I look at them, I know I’ve accomplished something.”

After a news conference Thursday at the Top of the Stratosphere, I asked Force if he ever lined up his Wallys in football formations — he attended Cerritos (Calif.) Junior College for the briefest of time to play the game — or something like that. He said no, but he has pictures of his racing daughters (Courtney, Ashley, Brittany) playing with Wally.

From there, our conversation veered off in several directions at around 300 mph, as all conversations with Force are wont, and he asked if he was talking too loud, and he said when he’s through racing — like that is ever gonna happen — he would share his Wallys with drag racing fans at his race shop/museum. He already does this, he said.

Then he said he owes everything — keeping those candles lit and whatnot — to his crew guys and the people in his organization, and then he plugged his sponsors, and Hagen’s sponsors, and the new “Snake vs. Mongoose” movie. And then he started to freak out, because the roller coaster on top of the Stratosphere was making these thumping sounds on the observation deck above the restaurant, and Force thought the whole tower was going to come tumbling down at any minute. And Force is afraid of heights.

(But not of Robert Hight, his son-in-law, fourth in Funny Car points.)

Anyway, The Wally is such a cool trophy that if this wasn’t drag racing, a sport that comes with grease under the fingernails, the NHRA probably would hire a man with white gloves to hand them out, like the guy who minds the Stanley Cup in hockey.

But there’s only one Stanley Cup and there are a lot of Wallys, and that’s probably why you could buy two on eBay Saturday.

The first one, advertised as having belonged to 2004 Funny Car champion Gary Scelzi, was going for the buy-it-now price of $1,500. The top bid for the other one was only $100. That Wally supposedly belonged to some guy who won the 1981 SportsNationals at Bowling Green, Ky.

I know a guy who has a Wally.

Sometimes, when he’s drinking beer and NASCAR is on TV, he’ll bring Wally out and put him on the coffee table to impress his pals.

I also know the guy who helped him get it. He said this particular Wally fell off the back of a truck. That was his story, he said, and he was sticking to it.

Had John Force been driving that truck, I almost would have believed it.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.