A True Entertainer took his last pass down the quarter mile this weekend with sparks flying and front wheels in the air. Mark -O-Hildonen, a four time Wheelstanding Champion, and a dear family friend has said good bye.
I met Mark before he became Mark-O or Mad Man Mark…. It was back in the early 70’s and my Dad was driving his first C-gas dragster at New England Dragway and things seemed a lot more simple back then. Mark was this crazy 16 year old kid that was driving a door-slammer (D/Gas and C/Altered 1966 Chevy Corvette Dual Carb 364 ci small block Chevy) and he always would stop by to talk to my parents and make them laugh. My first ride in a race car was when I was 7 or 8 years old. Mark let me sit on the metal floor on the passenger side with this over sized helmet on my head. I can remember the car being deafening loud while we pulled up to the Staging Lights. The “starter” looked in the car and asked Mark “what the **** do you think you are doing with THAT in there.” Mark rambled on and talked him into us making a pass. Like I said…it was a simpler time back then! With the windows up, the only thing I could hear was the engine revving and Mark screaming out the gears and making engine noises. “Get ready….here we go….FIRST GEAR….” Bang and the car jumped…”SECOND GEAR…BAWWWAHHHH…..THIRD GEAR….BAWAHH….YEAH BABY….HERE WE GO….” This was Mark. As a kid I just met someone that was bigger than life itself.
And so began my being a fan of Mark. Over the years my family campaigned many cars in many classes and my Dad, Mom and I raced all over the place full time. And Mark always was there. If it rained out he would want to make everyone laugh. Yup…the guy that just drove by half-naked on a mini bike, straight down the quarter mile in the rain…that was Mark. Later on in life he would not streak, but he would pick up the track microphone and do a rendition of TV Tommy Ivo racing against Don The SNAKE Prudhomme. It was like you were there and the fans would crawl out from under their tents and tarps to listen to the race echoing over the loud speakers. Fuel Funny Car GLORY! He would do the burnout noises, and the dry hops and he would overlay the announcer in the background screaming over the noise. It was so exciting to listen to. And then of course there was Mad Man Marko the Wheelstander Champ. In those days there were big time rivalries between all the big guns that raced those cars. And they all took it very seriously and Mark put together one of the most professional and competitive Wheelstand packages available to promoters and fans. Mad Man Marko and the Young American was an entertainment extravaganza. It was not about the car…it was all about the epic entertainment factor.
I guess I always knew there was something special about Marko. I grew up while watching him turn from Mark to Marko to Mad Man Mark-O-Hildonen. What made him different is that he was an entertainer and a showman. When other s “went racing”, Mark went to “put on a show.” His first Wheelstander “The Young American” toured the country for years. He brought his own groupies “The Markettes.” He had a glass trailer so everyone could see his car and of course he had his alter Ego – Mad Mary. Yes, to put on a bigger show he would dress as Mad Mary and pretend that he was Mark’s crazy sister. He would walk around the pits at New England in full garb. Finger nails painted, high heel shoes and blond wig. He would get out of his car after doing a pass and the whole time was in full character. He was an entertainer and the fans loved it.
I remember him starting his car up at a boring car show. Smoke and fire at the Heinz Auditorium in Boston. Fire Marshalls descended and Mark stood next to his smoking car after turning off the engines just in time. The crowd was roaring and so was the fire marshal and Mark just looked at him turning his head like someone had just run ran from the scene. He had that “not me!?” look on his face. And of course he talked his way out of trouble. This was Mark the guy that clowned around and made everyone part of the joke. He had a profound positive impact on everyone that he touched.
A good friend of my Dad’s once said that as a race driver you “drink from the cup.” And once you take that first sip you will chase that taste for the rest of your life. Mark drank from the cup and he chased the life of an entertainer until the very end. He passed away last Friday night in his Mark-O-Hildonen RV. There was no crowd and no applause. But his original wheelstander, “The Young American” was only a few feet away, parked right next to him in that same lot. On Friday night a Wheelstand hero died and a very good friend took his place amongst the stars.
Marko! – here’s to you my friend. Thanks for making us all smile and thanks for all the entertainment over the years. You brought joy to 10’s of thousands of fan’s hearts, especially mine and my families. I am sure you are at the center of an “Epic Event” behind those pearly gates. God Speed.
Joe Petro Jr and the Petro Family – “The Kamikaze”