Fort Oglethorpe native Donnie Holbrook is known to many in the world of drag racing. Formalizing his many accomplishments and contributions, he recently was inducted into the National Hot Rod Association Hall of Fame.
Over his 31-year career, Holbrook won two world championships, set four world records and started a business still used today by top dragsters around the world, Holbrook Performance Parts.
In January, Holbrook posthumously received the Don Garlits Pioneer Award, which recognizes the best of the best in drag racing. A private pilot for 20 years, he died in an airplane crash in 2012.
Holbrook started his racing career in 1980, racing his blue 1972 Plymouth Cuda from red light to red light on Lee Highway in East Brainerd. When his father told him to take it to the Brainerd Optimist Dragstrip — a safer place for a teenager to race cars — he realized he just couldn't go fast enough.
"Donnie said, 'Every pass, I want to be faster,'" his younger brother, Steve Holbrook said. "He was always about the next pass."
Before long, Donnie Holbrook bought his first racing car and broke the Brainerd Optimist track record.
He raced locally until 1985, when he started his professional career with the National Hot Rod Association, for which he eventually became an ambassador of the sport, visiting countries around the world that didn't have drag racing.
He was sent to Japan and Brazil to introduce the sport, but an introduction was not good enough. Holbrook Performance Parts provided the two countries with cars to race against the USA in the first Festival Brasil X EUA de Arrancada in Curitiba, Brazil. As crew chief, he set records in both countries for miles per hour, and elapsed time, referring to how long it takes a car to travel from the starting line to the finish line.
"Donnie's mastery was understanding the car and getting them to run fast," his brother said.
Donnie Holbrook went on to be the youngest owner of a Top Fuel team, comprised of the fastest racing cars in the world. He also was crew chief for his Holbrook Performance Parts team, which won two world championships.
As a crew chief, he was patient and precise, calculating adjustments just by watching the cars perform, Steve Holbrook said.
"Donnie could see the things we couldn't see," he said. "He could listen to a car and say 'It's not going to perform.'"
Beyond the cars and car parts he provided, Donnie Holbrook was instrumental in many racers' careers. When Clay Millican was in the lower levels of racing, Holbrook took him under his wing, helping him hone his skills at the Brainerd dragstrip. When Millican was ready, Holbrook took him to Germany to represent America in the NitrOlympX.
Millican snagged the silver medal and was later named NHRA Rookie of the Year, ultimately going on to become a six-time NHRA world champion.
"I would not be a six-time world champion if it were not for Donnie. You will never meet a finer man," Millican told Racin' and Rockin' Radio in 2013.
After his death, Holbrook's broader impact on the sport became evident as person after person called his wife, Barbara, to offer condolences and praises. Holbrook was incredibly humble, never bragging about his achievements or letting on that he'd helped someone, his family said.
"I knew he helped a lot of people, but I had no idea how many people and how much he had actually given until he passed away," Barbara Holbrook said. "It was just lines of people calling, and then months after, people telling me, 'I could not have gone to the next round if Donnie hadn't given me that part.'"
Racers would call Donnie saying they could make it if they had a certain part, she explained, and regardless of whether they could pay, he always came through.
"Donnie believed in doing things the right way no matter what," Steve Holbrook said. "He would say, 'I would rather give something to someone than for them to think I took advantage and overcharged them.'"
Holbrook Performance Parts continues to carry out Donnie Holbrook's vision through its daily operations. With customers on six continents, the client list speaks to his recognition in the industry, servicing some of the biggest names in the business, including Don Schumacher, Bunny Burkett, Pat Dakin and Bob Vandergriff.
"The fact that he got the Don Garlits award — he's [Garlits] known as the father of drag racing and he is a customer as well — that's the ultimate award that we could receive; that's the top honor," Steve Holbrook said.
Contact staff writer Alex Farmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.