Neil Mahr lost his battle with cancer last Friday. He was 72, and is survived by four children and 26 grand- and great-grandchildren, enough for several race teams. Mahr was never a world champion drag racer, but you knew he was there if for no other reason than his larger-than-life personality. Despite his relative lack of fame as a competitor, it’s safe to say that everyone in the top professional categories knew him – and can probably tell outrageous stories about him.
From Street Roadsters to outlaw Corvettes to Super Gas cars, Mahr drove them all. He even dabbled in Top Fuel with a duplicate of his friend, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits’ dragster, a machine with which he recorded his first five second run at the Gatornationals back when such quarter mile elapsed times still turned heads. Climbing out of the car on the return road, Mahr said, “That only cost me $150,000!” That’s a lot of money for a five second ride, but Mahr could have cared less. He just wanted to prove he could do it.
Mahr’s Super Press printing operation in Pennsylvania churned out a series of drag and stock car racing calendars that were artistic delights in their day. Mahr broke with other calendar producers when he actually paid the car owners for the use of their images, but conflicts with the NHRA over licensing agreements ultimately caused him to give up the program. Mahr did not take such setbacks well, but rather than burn bridges, he kept his notorious temper in check and went on to other things.
Stories abound regarding Mahr’s proclivity for fisticuffs first, and discussion later. He owned and operated a hugely successful campground directly opposite the main gate of Michigan Speedway, where he treated his guests as royalty, and troublemakers like so much trash to be discarded at the end of the day. Those who wished to party late into the night at the expense of others soon learned to camp elsewhere. For Mahr’s guests Sunday nights were always free because he wanted them to avoid the heavy post-race traffic, and he knew how much drinking went on during a long day in the sun. Better they should sleep it off in comfort rather than risk the dangers of the highway.
Don’t let that softer side of Mahr fool you. This is the same guy who, after being cut off by a car while towing a race car trailer, chased the offender down, jackknifed the rig in front of him, and then punched out the offender through the open window of his car!
But this is also the man who, as his life neared its end, caught a flight to Philadelphia where his son, Scott, picked him up. The pair jumped in Neil’s convertible, where he set the cruise control at 100 mph, and sped through the night to Charlotte just so he could surprise son Michael at his restaurant for breakfast.
As a racer Mahr was one tough son of a gun. As a businessman he was just as tough. His often bruised and swollen knuckles were proof enough of that. But when it came to his extended family, he was a pussycat, a “victim” waiting to happen at the sight of any of his 30 descendants. Behind the bluster he was the same way with his friends. Ask and ye shall receive – if you had the guts to ask!
We of the so-called older generation of drag racers often disparage the sport’s younger participants as having it too soft, too easy. Neil never saw it that way. He recognized that things change, and often said that he was glad today’s younger competitors didn’t have to struggle as hard as he’d had to to make it in the sport.
In a drag racing world where being Politically Correct seems to be the order of the day, Neil Mahr was a throwback, the likes of which we may never see again. In some ways he may have been rough as a cob, but he loved everything about drag racing. The sport suffers when individuals like him pass the ultimate finish line. – Jon Asher
Location: Mountain View Chapel, 69 Old Douglass Drive, Douglassville, PA
Viewing: Friday, April 22nd from 6:00-9:00 PM, Saturday, April 23rd 9:30-10:30 AM followed by the service officiated by Reverend Dave Dressler. In lieu of flowers contributions in Neil’s memory may be sent to Gospelink, Inc., P.O. Box 4299, Lynchburg, VA 24502, or Miracle House, 80 Eighth Avenue, Suite 315, New York, New York 10011