(Photo Don Roberts Collection)
OJ McKenney and the Freedom Machine
We called him “OJ Dragway,” but, in truth, we
didn’t know that much about him. We’d look forward to seeing him
this time of the year back in the early ’70s. He’d come around with
his brushes to letter up our race cars for the spring. And, in the
process, his nonstop cheeriness and that 10 megawatt smile would
splash the whole garage with color.
Then, without a word, OJ
was gone. We’d heard that he had moved to California. Then we heard
nothing at all.
Turns out that, in the background, OJ’s life
was being buffeted by all the passion, triumph, and tragedy auto
racing can possibly offer up.
When Owen McKenney was growing
up in Ashland, Mass., a bit west of Boston, his mechanical abilities
shone through, and so did creativity and a flair for life. He was
handsome, never mind a physical disability that caused a noticeable
limp. He hung with the local circle-track crowd until that moment he
stepped into a dragster up in Sanford, Maine.
caught the eye of car owner Tom Dawes and his tuner buddy Dick
Gazan. The trio bonded almost magically, and in no time Tom ordered
a fuel chassis and Dick built one honkin’ motor.
learning curve was 3.5 seconds, the time of that half run he had to
make while he was being watched for his license. On the second and
first full run, he was over 200 mph. After that, says Dick Gazan,
“You look in a driver’s eye and see if he is ready to throw up.” OJ
was totally unfazed. “Wow, this thing wants to run faster,” he
Off on a joyful adventure they embarked, their cars
branded the “Freedom Machine.” The late 1960s were golden. There was
a year and a half period when they never lost at Connecticut
Dragway. Often they’d win $1500 a week and split it three ways.
Dawes (L) and Dick Gazan work on top while OJ
checks the rockers on an early Freedom
(Photo Dave Kommel, Don Roberts
Five hundred dollars was big money back then,
and Owen was on a high. He was able to quit his engineering drafting
job, just to race. He tooled around in a boat of a yellow ’54 Caddy
convertible, most definitely raising the eyebrows of the more
conservative Dawes and Gazan.
Don Roberts, a wildly
successful Massachusetts drag racer himself, was OJ’s friend and
competitor. He says it was clear to all that OJ was a natural, so
talented that for him, like all racing greats, things seemed to
happen in slow motion. Dick Gazan agrees. He tells of the time he
and Tom, both smokers, mistakenly left cigarette butts in the
cockpit of the car. With all the currents at 200 mph, the butts
dislodged and OJ grabbed them out of the air. He returned them to
their owners at the end of the run.
And he was full of
self-confidence. He stood right up to Don Garlits in some notable
encounters. OJ told the guys after one run that “half way down I
looked over and Garlits was scowling at me. At the end of the run we
were still looking at each other, both scowling.”
getting ready in a rear engine Freedom car in March
(Photo Don Roberts Collection)
But, with the ’70s, utopia began
to unravel. Dick Gazan had to return to his Northern
Californian roots to be with his family, and Tom, too, soon
went West to keep up with responsibilities for his
considerable family business interests. The racing effort
Owen became increasingly uneasy. His marriage
began to go awry. And, as much as he said he wanted to race,
he would not normally accept rides other than Tom’s. He
longed to revive that three-part magic. He was heard saying,
“Dick never tuned me up to be on fire. Other guys have
become crispy critters.”
Finally, OJ packed up, left
his wife and son, and went to California, intent on helping
Tom finish up another racy fuel car. That’s when fate had
her way. Tom died suddenly of a heart attack in 1979.
Don Roberts recalls the Freedom gang as “a phenomenon.
They were like brothers. When Tom died, Owen was devastated.
He was never the same.” Owen did come back East once for a
his divorce and then remarried in California. But he was no
longer splashing colors; he was splashing drinks.
Dick tried to line him up with a ride or two to snap him out
of the funk. But, when it came down to that post-run eye
check, Dick could see that terror had replaced the glee in
And, so, OJ’s downward spiral ground on.
He was too blue to keep up with technology and he never
learned Computer Assisted Design for his drafting. There
were fewer and fewer assignments for “pencil guys.” Things
One night in 1991, OJ came back from a
barroom, they say, and his apartment door had been locked.
He went out in the alley and shot himself.
Ironically, a couple of weeks before Tom had died, Dick had
given him a pistol for his birthday. Somehow, when Owen had
helped sell the racing equipment for Tom’s surviving family,
he ended up with the gun. It was the weapon he used on
himself a decade later.
Even after 40 years,
understanding now what happened to OJ is heartbreaking. How
often we hear of the pain that can follow involvement in
top-level racing. Sometimes it seems that, once you’ve
experienced that mind-boggling, world-turning explosiveness
of something like a top fuel car, nothing can ever be the
equal. Was that the case with OJ and his fling with joy and
And once more, we see the ravages of that
awful mixed cocktail of depression and alcohol that so often
take a life too soon.
OJ, we hardly knew you.
logo remains today on the hood of Dick Berggren’s
restored 1970-era Don Edmunds sprint car.
(Karl Fredrickson/Christine Worthington Photo)
© 2012 Lew Boyd, Coastal 181
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