Those of you who have followed this column since its inception July 23, 2007, some 380 entries ago according to my quick math, have seen this column evolve into its current format. Originally, it was conceived as a behind-the-scenes look at how National DRAGSTER was produced and a place to talk about what stories we were working on.
It kind of struggled along with a lackluster audience until mid-September of that year, when I got an out-of-the-blue phone call from former U.S. Nationals Top Fuel champ Marvin Graham, who was calling to report the death of his longtime crew chief Chester Garris. As we talked, the reporter in me kicked in, and I asked him about his career, heard some things I'd never heard, hung on every word, and wrote a column about talking with him. The reception was overwhelming, and by word of mouth, the page views of that article shot through the roof.
It was an epiphany for me. I considered myself somewhat of a drag racing history expert – a collective knowledge borne from teenage years of reading magazines and books and watching TV shows and later, of course, firsthand witness – and I realized that so much of what we as fans know about the sport is seared into our brains from multiple accounts that pretty much back up one another. Yet I soon found that there were so many untold tales that needed to be told, subtle nuances that could be layered on the foundation of already-known facts and oft-repeated recounts. So that's where the direction this column went and never looked back.
I began using the tagline "The stories behind the stories" and uncovered fascinating nuances that filled in some of the gaps – it's still happening; for example, in my recent account in National DRAGSTER of the real story behind Jeb Allen's Garlits-busting 5.62 run in Gainesville in 1981 – and was surprised that many of these stories had never been published. Getting the racers to understand that these tidbits of trivial matter might be almost as important as the deeds themselves took some doing and some scratched heads as to why I wanted to know specific details on this or that, but the readers got it. Before long, I was adding the readers' perspective and -- at least at first – unknowingly adding new sentences and paragraphs and even pages to the history book of our sport through the firsthand accounts of those who witnessed these great moments. Longtime Insider reader Mark Watkins, in a very kind post a while ago on Nitromater, likened what goes on here to the new technology of "cloud computing," where all of the assets are out there for all to see and add to.
All of this is a rambling preamble to today's column, another submission from former Funny Car racer Jeff Foulk, who hit me square between the eyes with this comment: "Once us old guys are gone, there will be no one to ask. I dare say there are lots of history buffs who would kill for the chance to talk to a Civil War vet or a witness to the doings of the Wild West. More people (like myself) should keep this in mind and not be stingy with our recollections. There is no substitute for having been there."
That's so true, and as the list of passings continues to grow each year and the oral history is lost, many of us are quietly panicking but also taking action. You might be familiar with Project 1320, which is a dedicated effort by a group that is also racing nature's deadline to accumulate the remembrances of our sport's heroes. It's kind of like losing that great-grandfather in your family, or even your own parents. There's a finite amount of time to probe their memories and ask all of the questions you ever wanted to ask. Don't be afraid to ask, and always be ready to hear.
In a recent issue of National DRAGSTER, I quoted the following line from Tommy Lee Jones' opening monologue in the film No Country for Old Men because it resonated with me: "I always liked to hear about the old-timers. Never missed a chance to do so." Sometimes, like today, it's best just to let the old-timers tell it themselves. Take it away, Jeff …
"One aspect of the original Funny Car craze that I should have mentioned is exactly how squirrelly the cars really were. You have to remember that they evolved directly from the factory F/X and match race stockers. Once Chrysler took off the gloves with the altered-wheelbase cars, the lid was off the bottle. At first, Ford prohibited their drivers from running match races against the Mopar-backed cars. The Ford drivers took a lot of heat for it but had no choice but comply or lose their sponsorship. Ford knew their A/FX cars were overmatched. The solution soon became apparent: nitro! As I remember it, 'Dyno Don' Nicholson and his stock-bodied Comet were first to make the move. The Mopars soon followed suit. Then, of course, came Ford's reply, with the Logghe-chassised flip-top Comets.
"Because the cars had evolved from basically stock-bodied cars with full suspension, the first Funny Cars continued to use the stock suspension systems. We were about making horsepower; suspension and chassis didn't win races. We didn't know; we were making it up on the fly. As a result, loads of power made for some rather dodgy handling characteristics. This was actually a double-edged sword: Although you might be virtually out of control, and literally sideways, you still could drive the car. This made for some really crossed-up runs, which the fans ate up. I can remember leaving the line, going to the edge of the track and back to the centerline, then back to the center, all in low gear! They were a lot more fun to drive than the later cars. It was very frustrating, after many trips into the grass, to realize that I couldn't 'drive' my solid rear car the way I used to my old one. The solid cars were basically point it and pray; once they were crossed up, there was no driving it, no matter how brave or stubborn you were. Then they added guardrails, so you couldn't even venture into the grass. They took all the color out of the game! I think it is an interesting stat to contemplate that today's Hemi Challenge cars were 10.20 cars back in the '60s. Now they run as quick as most of the injected Funnies back in my day. Makes you wonder how our car would have evolved."
Foulk also shared information about the restoration that his original Cougar is undergoing at the hands of Don Sedo.
"My old car will probably be the most authentic restoration in history because it will have the actual, original engine that was actually used in the car on the first go-round," he reported. "This would be quite a stretch for most cases, but for us, it is true. After I retired the Cougar, we had built the GT-40 car with a Boss 351 motor. The old 289 (348), which was pretty tired, was retired and relegated to a corner of the garage. I tried to sell it, but no one serious emerged, so I kept it. It made two brief comebacks, after freshening up, most recently in my crewman Charlie Gilmore's nostalgia dragster. It was in my brother's basement in Pennsylvania when I first came in contact with Don Sedo after he acquired the Cougar. It was picked up and now resides in Canada in its original chassis. The crank, eight rods, six pistons, original oft-repaired heads, and the remaining one of two blocks I had originally built for my Mustang, way back in 1966. Hard to believe, but true. The longevity can be attributed to faithful maintenance, necessity (it was the only engine I had for the Cougar), and the foresight to equip it with a full crank lower end support. I always felt that without the girdle, I would long ago have laid the crank on the ground, especially on a steady diet of 90 percent nitro. It also still has the Hilborn injectors, Vertex mag, and Weiand front cover to mount the fuel pump. Don also has one of two original Fairbanks C-4 transmissions."
As an interesting sidenote and a tale lost to time, our old pal and veteran automotive scribe Rick Voeglin has taken note of Foulk's recent submissions and pointed out that "Jeff didn't mention his shining moment in the pages of Super Stock and Drag Illustrated. An impossibly young Jim McCraw, then SS&DI editor, earned his Experimental Stock NHRA Competition Driver License behind the wheel of the Finagler. Craw's exploits were featured in a five-page article in the February 1969 issue, 'SS&DI Drives a Fuel Funny Car.' He made the required three passes, going 9.91, 138.45 on his final run on 75 percent nitro (good enough for Super Gas these days). There's even a shot of his license signed by Buster Couch. So long before Jon Asher's infamous "I Drove a Funny Car on Fire!" feature, McCraw had already been there and done that (sans flames, fortunately)."
Thanks, Jeff. Interesting info as always. I still have more stuff to share on injected Funny Cars, including a ton of photos you guys have sent, before we move on to other topics. I'm also always interested to get "requests" for what you’d like to read about, sort of an online Readers Choice like we do annually in National DRAGSTER. Let me hear from you (as if I have to ask).
Speaking of restorations and getting back old cars, I got an e-mail this week from Darrell Gwynn, who's looking for his first dragster, which may well have been one of the sport's first "Jr. Dragsters." That's it above.
Darrell's dad, Jerry, built the car out of electrical conduit in 1967. At the time, it had a four-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine and was belt-driven. Darrell said that he believes the wheels were from a Karmann Ghia.
"I am trying to get my hands on that car," he wrote. "I sold that car for $200 to buy a motorcycle; pretty stupid, huh? I am really hopeful that it is out there and that your readers can help."
There are times when I wish that I could work exclusively on this column, and this is one of those weeks. I have so many things on my "want-to" list that I just can’t seem to get to them. I have promises out to so many people to call for stories that it's driving me a little crazy not being able to get to them all while doing my "real" job at National DRAGSTER.
I still need to call back Funny Car pioneer Ron Pellegrini to talk about a couple of things, including the founding of the Midwest injected Funny Car circuit, his involvement in early Funny Car body building through his company, Fiberglass Ltd., and the tale of Mickey Thompson's interesting Grand Am Funny Car, which I mentioned several times is (for some reason) one of my all-time favorite floppers. I still want to sit down with the one and only Bill Doner, whom I met at the Prudhomme get-together a few months ago, to share the tale of one of drag racing's most famous/notorious promoters and track operators. I just recently made contact with another much-storied figure from drag racing's past, "Captain Jack" McClure, he of rocket go-kart fame, and want to share his story. I have an ongoing promise to someday get and share the images of longtime SoCal photographer Barry Wiggins. I need/want to talk to well-traveled Funny Car racer Butch Maas about his storied career. I just talked with Rodney Flournoy the other day following the passing of his dad and want to tell their great and inspirational story as well. You can look for some of these tales in either upcoming columns here or in my Pure Nostalgia column in National DRAGSTER. So much to do, so little time!
In the meantime, feedback keeps backing up from stuff we've discussed, especially in the injected Funny Car thread, so I'm going to unburden my Inbox with some of the jewels therein.
How about injected Funny Car video? Reader Franklin Amiano pointed me to this video on YouTube that he thought we all might enjoy. "It's incorrectly tagged as a Coke Circuit race," he wrote. "It's actually an 'East vs. West' booked-in race between Smoker Smith's blown alky circuit (including the Cassidy Bros. Grand Am) against the Midwest UDRA guys, including Bob Larimore's Pegasus Pinto. These shows were common in the early spring when it was too cold to race up north. Enjoy!" We will. Thanks, Franklin!
Mike Sheets, another competitor in the Midwest circuit, sent this photo of his old ride. "This is a car I drove in 1972, with crew chief Al DaPozzo," he reported. "I left California with Leonard Wagner and a car he purchased from Ray Alley, a lay-down Firebird. We came to Chicago and stayed in Steve Manhart's shop for a while.
"Things didn't go so well, and Leonard decided to go home. Bob Chapman offered me the ride with Al as crew chief, a job in his shop building racing parts, and an apartment I shared with Lance Larsen. I could not say no. We had some good races and some not so good, but Al was a terrific guy to drive for."
Reader Dale Cole sent a handful of photos of injected Funny Cars from the 1960s and 1970s that you can find in the gallery at right. "They were taken at Sunset Dragstrip in the summer of 1967. Sunset was an eighth-mile hole-in-the-wall place on Route 62 between Sharon and Mercer, Pa. It was owned by George and Alex Theopolis, who always got the best to come, rumor has it because they paid in CASH. What great times they were. I am 68 years young and have taken pics at every meet I attended back to the early '60s. I lived in northeast Ohio and now reside in Charlotte and attend zMax Dragway at both NHRA meets. Enjoy!"
Inside the gallery, you'll find photos of recent Insider contributor Jeff Foulk's Finagler Cougar, Larry Arnold's Penetration Charger, the Clare Sanders-driven Lime Fire Barracuda, Dave Koffel's Flintstone Flyer 'Cuda (talked about in this column a few weeks ago), Eddie Schartman's famed Air Lift Rattler Cougar, Bruce Larson's USA-1 Chevelle, Huston Platt's Dixie Twister Camaro, Roger Lindamood's Color Me Gone Charger, and Hans Anderson's Golden Chariot Plymouth Valiant. These are all really cool photos and well worth a look. Thanks, Dale!
As a side note about Foulk, he's also offered other tales from his days at the track that I'll share in upcoming columns, so be on the lookout.
For a lot of SoCal fans, the John Kinsel-owned, Lorry Azevedo-driven Drummer Camaro is one of the first injected Funny Cars that comes to mind, and with good reason as the car ran hard and seemed to run everywhere. Bruce McClurg dropped me a note and some photos concerning the history of the car.
"The first photo (all photos are by Steve Reyes) are with the original paint, which was candy apple red with gold/orange trim. The second photo was around late '73-early'74 if I remember correctly with the flamed front. Lorry won the '72 Summernationals against Bob Durbin, driving the JEGS A/FC and setting the E.T. record of 7.34 (to the best of my memory) in the process. The car was converted to BB/FC in either late '74 of early '75. I worked for Lorry at his HAT Racing Enterprises in San Rafael, Calif., at the time. We met a lot of really great people while racing.
"The chassis was a Woody Gilmore, AA/FC-rated. I believe the body was from Fiberglass Specialties; paint by Don Kirby, Kenny Youngblood was responsible for the paint layout and detailing. Engine was a Keith Black 484 with Hilborn injectors, Crower clutch with a B&M Torqueflight. The rear end was the then -popular Halibrand quick change. The B&M just couldn't handle the power, we had to change them every third run, so a Lenco 3-speed was installed -- end of problem. I believe it was around '74 when a blower was installed and the car ran BB/FC. John eventually sold the car to Lorry who ran it for some time after."
California racer Dan Glover wanted to share the interesting story about his injected Vega wagon Funny Car that he ran in SoCal back in the 1980s which he believes wore an ex-Don Schumacher Wonder Wagon body.
"The two enclosed photos show two Funny Cars and may very well be the same car," he writes. "The only thing I can tell by the photo is whether or not the Wonder Wagon shown is the one that Kelly Brown drove. After some time after the Kelly Brown driven car finished its campaign the car was bought by Cragar and the body was set aside and another body was installed on the car which was the test car for the Cragar high pressure bottle in lieu of a normal blower. It never worked out as you might recall."
(I think that Glover is talking about the experimental car that Jake Johnston drove in testing in the early 1970s in which cold compressed air was injected into the engine in lieu of a blower. I remember seeing some photos of this back in the day. Anyway, his story continues.)
"I was looking for a Funny Car body and learned that an employee of Cragar had the Kelly Brown-driven Wonder Wagon body at his house. Long story short I bought the body from him. He was the son of [George] Cerny, the painter of many race cars of old, and had his own paint shop. I bought the body and a new paint job as a package and we retained the Kenny Youngblood graphics on the grill and lights. The body was originally built by John Buttera. Out in the sun and looking hard you could still see the Wonder Bread circles on the rear panels. I took some dimensions of the body and my partner Gary Bryngelson and I built a new chassis to run bracket races. It fit perfectly, even the cutouts for the roll cage. We mostly ran the car at OCIR and in the early days it was called the Blue Bitch (long story about that) and later we renamed the car Midnight Express We ran a 427 big-block Chevy with Hilborn stacks and a Turbo 400. Lots of fun. We never ran anything other than gas. In Funny Car style we had no suspension on the car and it worked really well. Larry Sutton commented that it was the hardest-leaving car he ever saw; I'm sure he meant with regards to bracket cars. We did need more horsepower since the body was over 350 pounds but we ran 9.30s and with the body off it ran 8.84."
OK, that's it for today. Thanks, as always, to those who have contributed, and for all of your memories and great photos. I know that very many of the photos that are sent are from personal collections and have never been seen before by the general racing public, so I appreciate you sharing them here. Have a great weekend. Me. I'm going to try to catch up on my phone calls!
Two weeks ago, we heard from former Funny Car racer Jeff Foulk, who shared his memories of the East Coast Fuel Funny Car Circuit, and this week, I heard from fellow era flopper pilot Drake Viscome, who dropped me not one but two hefty packages filled with photos and flyers from the circuit as well as pages of handwritten notes that shed a little more light on the old series.
Tom "Smoker" Smith did most of the early booking with Frank Leseuer while also driving one of what Viscome calls "the stalwart duo" of the series, Kenny Warren's Virginia Twister. The other member of that dynamic duo was Gene Altizer's Pak Rat, and Viscome noted that both have been deservedly inducted into the East Coast Hall of Fame.
Viscome ran through a list of the competitors, with notes on many famous names you may recognize outright or whom you have read about here who used the circuit as a springboard to success.
"Old friend John Skistimas was partnered up with Jake Crimmins for a year and later with Tom Stapleton for a year or two. Al Segrini with brother Lou had the American Express car for a couple of years before the Jim Beattie/ATI Black Magic AA/FC. For a year or two, Al Hanna ran with his Eastern Raider Pinto before he and Joe Mundet switched to AA/FC. Old pals Joe Amato and Tim Richards raced with us for a year or two as well with the Keystone Kuda before going Alcohol Funny Car racing with the Gabriel Hi-Kacker Monza.
"There were a good number of others that ran this deal (travel … lots of it, and a bunch of shows) that should not be forgotten. They were part of the 'the gang' that raced week in and week out up and down the East Coast a couple of times a week (at least!) every week: Butch Kernodle's All-American cars; Nick Boninfante and Pat Walsh; Billy Lerner's Paper Boy SOHC Ford cars; Oren 'Pop' Whitt and Randy Bray with the Hippie Hemi; 'Jumpin' Joe' Weis (Top Fuel racer Scott Weis' dad); the Carlton Bros.' Swinger; the late Bobby Martindale's Tonka; Jim Wiggleworth and Kenny Warren's Mini Cuda and Mini Charger; the Mini Brute Opel of Charlie Gary, Dan Smoker, and Nick Allen; Charles 'Scottie' Scott and J.R. Rice's Twister Buster and Highland Bandit entries; the late Charles Lee's Super Javelin and Camaro; and Leroy Worley. All of these cats were the heart of the ECFFCC most of all of the years, not a year and gone.
"More ECFFCC guys/cars: 'Joltin' Joe' Fennesy; Bowen & Kopper (with Ed Kopper, who went on to be crew chief for Bob Newberry for many years), Jay Miner's the Trip; the Lucas & Harte Vitamin C Charger; the late Bob 'Gator' Dalton; and Don Hulse and the Plane Crazy."
Viscome also remembers the special relationships that the series forged with track owners and operators such as Vinnie and Richard Napp in Englishtown, Jack Musselli at Atco, the Lewis family at Maple Grove, and Julio Marra and Capitol and Aquasco.
Although the circuit began with injected nitro cars only, it began welcoming blown alcohol cars in 1974, at which point Nick Boninfante began doing the booking.
"When Boninfante took over the booking and formed Fuel Funny Car promotions, the series featured some of the best racers ever known," he continued. "Carol 'Bunny' Burkett; Carol 'Warlock' Henson; Rodlyn 'Country Girl' Knox; Frank 'Ace' Manzo; Bob Chipper; Glen Lazaar; Keith Hughes and Arnie Karp and the Boston Strangler; the Bell Boys; Pete Gallen and Rich McPhillips and Poverty Stricken; Joe Samolyk and the Pleasure Seekers; Gene Terenzio's Italian Stallion; and Anton Addesseo's Pig Pen. Running these guys every week was like running a national event.
"How about ol' Bill Barrett, the legendary crew chief for Kenny Warren, Jim Beattie's ATI Black Magic, and even got 'Bunny' started after we sold her the first Funny Car. He's still active and has helped so many but never really received his 'just due' recognition. He was well-liked, a gentleman, and very well-respected by all that knew him.
"For sure, the West Coast always had/has a cavalry of awesome racers -- the Midwest, too – but 'back East,' we had/have a pretty good number of bad Joses, too."
Viscome wheeled a long line of entries sponsored by Carmel Ford under the Vindicator name. During his time on the circuit, Viscome's cars always were Ford-powered, initially with engines from Wayne Gapp, then Gapp & Roush, and finally Ed Pink.
Of his own career path, Viscome admitted that his team "could never really make the transition needed to go from paid-to-appear/run format for 15 years to the Big Show qualifying and competition. In hindsight, it wasn't really money (because we were well-funded), it really was just ego and complacency and'just plain lazy. Obviously, Joe Amato and later Frank Manzo accomplished the'transition pretty well.
"That era was something," he concluded. "For sure, I was just grateful to have been a little part of it."
Thanks for the memories, Drake. It's very clear in my mind that for many people, it didn't take a supercharger to supercharge their desires, and the fans loved the injected cars, too. This is already beginning to look like another of those ramp-truck/wedge-dragster threads as the photos and memories keep pouring in. More later this week.
Hey, remember me? Yeah, the guy who writes a twice-weekly column here? Yeah, that guy.
Well, I'm back after missing the call for Tuesday's first round. A combination of two family emergencies, dealing with a head cold, and a boatload of National DRAGSTER work forced the no-show, but you don't want to hear those excuses, right? Anyway, apologies all around, and the next round's on me.
Today is actually a paid vacation day for the NHRA staff, so both buildings are shuttered. Me, always a glutton for punishment, I'm in the office, taking advantage of the quiet to catch up on this column and the other stuff I fell behind on as well as expense reports, annual employee reviews, and all of the other fun stuff that wasn't in the original help-wanted ad.
I'm working on a couple of other columns dealing with this month's hot topic – injected fuel Funny Cars – but neither is quite ready, so I'm going to share the interesting images below, which reader Ed Eberlein sent.
One of my all-time favorite cars, Mickey Thompson's Grand Am. Ed got original driver Butch Maas to autograph it.
Ed, apparently, was like a lot of us in high school, taking to doodling in class, with the subject naturally being race cars, but unlike most of us, he was pretty good at it and had the foresight to take his finished drawings to the digs and get them autographed by the subjects of his handiwork, giving him a unique – and, I'm guessing, a very collectible – and extensive autograph collection and a hobby that led to great things. And anytime the subject is '70s Funny Cars, I don't care if it's photos or drawings, I'm interested.
"These are all hand drawn with Flair felt pens back when I was in high school, in 1970-73, or maybe a tad beyond into the mid-'70s," he said. "I lived in Sacramento and became friends with Dan McCord, who eventually teamed with Gary Ormsby to form the McCord/Ormsby Funny Car team. While being a fan of the sport and loving the work of 'Blood and Nat [noted car painters Kenny Youngblood and Nat Quick], [I] drew the cars, then asked the drivers to sign them from Pomona to Fremont to Sacramento and OCIR.
"It was great fun, and the drivers were very receptive. The Pabst Blue Ribbon guys even asked [if I would]do another and send to them so they could present it to the people in Milwaukee.
"As a result of this artwork, it helped me become a gofer for Gordie Bonin when he drove the Hawaiian at Sacramento Raceway Park and later when he bacame '240 Gordie' [with] the Bubble Up car. I also got to work with Mike Miller and his car, Boredom Zero, which I still believe to this day to be the best name for a Funny Car. It was a lot of fun working and being with the guys back when. Even got to go to Kirby's paint shop and see the wall with every name and phone number, from Prudhomme to Garlits on it. From this, I now am doing sign work full time near Denison, Iowa, but I will always cherish the memories of doing these drawings and the reactions of the drivers and owners during those halcyon days of drag racing."
And our teachers told us no good could come of our obsession with drag racing …
OK, kids, I'll be back Tuesday (I promise!) with a new column. If you’re going to the Hot Rod Reunion this weekend in Bakersfield (and who isn't?), maybe I’ll see ya there. Well, if I ever finish these damned expense reports that is …