Stalking the Night StalkerFriday, December 09, 2011

Throughout the course of this growing rear-engine Funny Car thread, I’ve received several requests for more information on the Night Stalker Mustang that was the unlikely first Funny Car for the man who would become the king of the class, John Force. After all, a chain-driven sidewinder hardly sounds like a good place to launch a 15-championship career, right?

Most of you probably know that the car was originally built by the late, great Jack Chrisman and have heard what an awful car it was and about how the car threw chain links at Irwindale Raceway starter Larry Sutton, who not so politely disinvited Force back for subsequent efforts.

All true certainly, but let’s dig deeper, shall we?


(Above) Jack Chrisman's car, as it appeared in the November 1971 issue of Hot Rod, and (below) a close-up of the chain drive to the rear axle.

That Chrisman built a sidewinder Funny Car does not require a huge leap in logic as Chrisman had enjoyed great success with Chuck Jones’ Sidewinder I and II dragsters in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The attraction to the concept is easy to see: The right-rotating engine torque buries the rear tires for better traction and straighter leaves (even Don Garlits took a stab at it with Swamp Rat 27 a decade later).

Working off a sketch from Chrisman, Woody Gilmore built the Mach I Funny Car at his famed Race Car Engineering emporium, turning Chrisman's imagineering into structurally safe reality. The chassis was actually modular in that four pins held the front and back halves together, allowing for a completed engine/driveline change (if you had a spare rear assembly) in just a few minutes.

According to an article in the November 1971 issue of Hot Rod, Chrisman seized on the Hy-Vo chain technology developed by Borg-Warner's Morse Chain division that was being used by General Motors in its front-wheel-drive Olds Toronados and Cadillac Eldorados and had Morse build him a special-application chain 2 1/2 inches wide with a 22,000-pound capacity to withstand the SOHC 427 Ford engine's estimated 1,500 horsepower and 8,000 rpm. Morse also was kind enough to provide Chrisman with a cheat sheet of sprocket sizes to determine final gearing. The front sprocket, driven off the engine's output shaft, was made of 4130 chrome moly steel; the back sprocket, made from an aluminum blank, was mated to a solid-tune Hi-Tuff alloy rear axle. An extra benefit is the elimination of the rear-end weight, which Chrisman estimated at 250 pounds.

"The car is like a giant go-kart or slot racer -- no difference,” explained Chrisman in the article. “What we have here is a motor, a clutch, a chain, and 'live' rear axle; and no driveshaft, two-speed, or rear-end problems."

To the best of my research, which includes Tom Madigan’s exhaustive new Chrisman family biography, Chrisman never drove the car but sold it to aspiring Southern California racer Roy Mehus, who owned a motorcycle dealership, Yamaha of Buena Park. (Somewhere along the line, Mehus’ name began being misspelled/misreported as Mehue or Mahue, but Mehus is correct.)

Steve Reyes photo of Roy Mehus on his first pass with the ex-Chrisman car. One run later, it was in the Orange County Int'l Raceway guardrail.

Insider reader Bill Sampson, who was a neighbor of Mehus, tells me that Mehus had received a considerable inheritance after his grandparents' death and decided to go Funny Car racing. “He bought the car from Chrisman and raced it for a short period of time,” wrote Sampson. “As with the other rear-engine Funny Cars, the handling was unstable, and I believe the car crashed at Orange County Int'l Raceway; I just don't remember who was driving the car at the time.”

Steve Reyes was on hand for the OCIR crash in 1971, which he reports happened on Mehus’ driver Bill Finacle's second pass in the car. The damage was repaired, and he ran the car again; that much is not in question. But here’s where it gets a bit sticky, as you will read later in the column.

Anyway, Mehus was a friend of Force’s when both attended Bell Gardens High School. Years later, Mehus opened the motorcycle dealership, in front of which he sometimes parked the Funny Car. Force saw it, stopped to chat, and the next thing he knew, Mehus asked Force if he wanted to drive it.

True to his legend, Force was indeed a truck driver at the time, and he had a fuel altered – the Beaver Hunter -- that he could barely get to run, but he wanted to be a Funny Car driver bad enough that he jumped at the chance to become involved with the car. Force doesn’t recall that he even paid for it at the time, but he and good pal Bob Fisher loaded up the beast and took it home and dubbed it Night Stalker, after the 1972 movie of the same name. Mehus remained involved with the car, and the name of his Yamaha dealership was a regular on the flanks of Force’s cars for the next decade.


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The Night Stalker, loaded up and headed for the 'Dale.
 
Force’s younger brother, Louie, was the crew chief, and Mehus worked on the car with them. Rick Weeda, who owned a car dealership in Downey, Calif., was listed as a partner on the car (at least initially) and bought fuel and some parts for the fledgling team.

(Intriguing sidenote: Force says that the Night Stalker may not, in fact, have been his true first Funny Car ride because he tried to make a couple of laps in an ex-Steve Bovan car that Weeda had purchased at an auction, but they had mechanical issues with the transmission. He’s “pretty sure” it was before the Night Stalker.)

Force, who borrowed a helmet and firesuit from cousin Dave Condit, however, remembers well the first outing with the Night Stalker.

“It took me half a day just to get suited up, then it wouldn’t even start,” he said. “We were a mess. We didn’t even have a spare spark plug. We finally got it going and made one pass, a 7.70 or 7.80 at 182 mph, but the chain kept coming apart because there was no idler pulley, so when you would do a burnout and then lift, the chain would start to unravel and throw links off. On one of my next runs, the chain broke and hit Sutton, and they threw me out.

“It was evil,” Force recalled. “Because your head was on the windshield, it would come around before you realized what happened; you didn’t have anything in front of you to guide you. It looks like it has a front end, but sitting in the car, you couldn’t hardly see it. I never even got licensed in it. I sold it to some sand racer guy. I wish I had that car back. It was awesome."

To that end, Force would very much love to have the car back and has staff members scouring the Internet and friends making phone calls on his behalf.

I came across a message-board posting from fuel car owner/tuner Virgil Hartman, who said that he bought the car from a friend of his neighbor for $600, sold the removable back half of the car for the same amount, then converted the rest of the chassis to a standard Funny Car, which he ran with a carbureted econo dragster engine. He ran it only five times before he got an offer from a Midwest buyer to sell the car, which he did for “a healthy profit. The body came up for sale last summer for $2,000, and it still had the Night Stalker paint job. It was in Kansas or Missouri or thereabouts. The short version: The chassis and running gear are separated, modified, and gone; the body is available.”

If anyone knows anything more about the whereabouts of any of the parts and pieces, drop me a line.

OK, here’s where the Mehus/Force connection gets weird. I’ll call this the Case of the Curious Cop Car.

Tom West, one of the many wonderful photographers of that era, took the photo at right of a car that clearly is the same Mustang sporting a police car paint scheme. DragList reports that Force first drove the car as the Night Stalker and later as a car called Cop Patrol; this photo accompanies the DragList listing on the car, so all of this seemed to line up. The fact that Force’s older brother, Walker, was an L.A. County sheriff and that Force, too, dreamed of a career in law enforcement (before he failed the ink-blot test, according to him) gave further credence to the story.

I asked West for a large-format version of the photo, which he promptly and graciously provided. I enlarged it and was surprised to see Mehus’ name written (in shoe polish, it seems) on the left front fender. However, there are two more shoe-polished words on the roof, and if you squint your eyes just enough, you can convince yourself that the second word is Force. West swears it says Brute Force, but the photo doesn’t hold together well enough for me to see that when I blow it up.

But I’d heard that Force only had driven the car a few times, and always only at Irwindale, and this photo clearly was taken at OCIR. Also, the helmet in this photo, although somewhat obscured, compares favorably to a Reyes photo of Mehus in the cockpit before his ill-fated pass, especially the circular design on the side, as well as the design of the Nomex face mask. Force also said (and photos I have back this up) that he didn’t even have enough money to get his helmet lettered.

And the name on the “door” reads Dragway Patrol, not Cop Patrol. Hmmmm. However, West told me that he had printed this photo and had Bill Holland take it to Force in Sonoma about a dozen years ago, and Force at the time told Holland that it was him driving the car. Or maybe he meant it was his first car. No one’s sure.

(Jefferson Dykes photo)

I’ve spoken to Force many times about this car and had originally planned to write this column without trying to reach him while he’s neck deep in all kinds of secretive plans for next year, but this all got way too confusing, so I called him. He called me back almost right away, excited to be talking about something other than rumors and questions about sponsors and Courtney and Top Fuel.

First things first: Force says emphatically that’s not him in the Dragway Patrol. He insisted that he drove the car only as the Night Stalker and only at Irwindale and that he sold the car to a sand racer, still painted in Night Stalker colors (which would appear to be backed up by Hartman's claim above). Then I came upon the photo at right, which clearly shows the Night Stalker in fact running at OCIR. I don’t fault Force for not having a perfect memory of 40 years ago, but it does make me wonder.

Force has had only occasional contact with Mehus in the years since but knew where he lived (out of state). As a follow-up, I thought he could help solve the Case of the Curious Cop Car. An Internet search in that area yielded quite a few returns on the unusual surname. I called all nine numbers; eight were disconnected, and I left a voice mail on the ninth. If I hear back, I’ll let you know. [Update: 12/16/11: Mystery solved. Case closed.]
 

Getting our rears in gearTuesday, December 06, 2011

When it comes to rear-engine Funny Cars, the engine may have been in the back, but the love from the Insider Nation is front and center, and the DI mailbag started overflowing. After Friday’s piece on the Hindsight, I heard from two of its former pilots, Don Baumunk and Dennis Geisler (Jim Adolph, where are you?), thanking me for sharing their story. And I heard from famed 1960s/’70s race car builder Jay Howell, Funny Car hstorian Danny White, and from the United Kingdom, Australia, and Italy. (I also heard from DI regular Robert Neilsen, who thinks we should be calling them mid-engine instead of rear-engine, but that's a whole 'nother Oprah.)


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Hindsight driver Don Baumunk, left, and car owner Bert Berniker
 
Baumunk sent me a ton of photos of the early Hindsight, which you can see in the gallery at right. He is the president of FatKatz, which makes aftermarket gas tanks and fenders for motorcycles; its work has been featured on the American Chopper series on the Discovery channel.

I gave Don a call, and we chatted about his time in the car and about Bert Berniker, who’s shown in the first photo here at right, in the yellow shirt talking to Baumunk. The photos are from the Hindsight’s maiden outing at Orange County Int’l Raceway in 1972. Interestingly, Baumunk had never driven anything quicker than a bracket car when Berniker asked him to drive his new creation.

“When you get involved with something as exciting as that deal, you’d think it would be stuck in your mind forever, but I cannot figure out how I got hooked up with Bert,” he admitted.

Despite a series of outings at both OCIR and Irwindale, Baumunk never ran quick or consistently enough to earn his Funny Car license, but he did register a best run of 7.29 at 200 mph, which is quite remarkable considering the handicap that Baumunk faced behind the wheel.

“I was so tall that I had to drive with the butterfly steering wheel [turned 90 degrees]; there was no room in the car for me to hold it straight like you normally would,” he said. “That wasn’t a lot of fun. Driving the car wasn’t my cup of tea anyway, and I didn’t want to try to be a hero, so I turned it over to Jimmy [Adolph]. I think a lot of people thought that Bert had a lot of money, but that wasn’t the case. He was just a fantastic, hardworking guy who got into something that he was just dumping a lot of money into.”

Howell (previously immortalized in this Insider column) wrote to remind me of the Dart Charger rear-engine car that he built in 1965 while employed at Dick Branster’s shop in Michigan.

“I designed and built the car; it was the first Funny Car I ever built," he said. “I was 22 or 23 back then. Dodge provided a new ‘65 Dart for the project. I powered it with a blown 426 Hemi on nitro and a 727 Torqueflite transmission positioned directly behind the driver; Frank Wylie (Dodge public relations vice president) funded the project. The Alexander Bros. in Detroit did the rainbow paint job. I tuned and drove it. We ran some match races and exhibition appearances. Garlits went with us once when we first tested it at Motor City Dragway and taught me how to read the plugs! We took it to Indy that year and set low e.t. and top speed. 9.02 at 164.

"Branstner lost his contract with Dodge and Wylie gave it to Garlits who put Emory Cook in the seat. They took the Torqueflite out, moved the engine back and ran it direct drive.  Emory turned it over backwards in the lights at Detroit Dragway. destroying the car. He was unhurt. That's the highlights.”
 
While working for Branster, Howell also built the Cotton Picker mid-engine Dodge wagon for stock-car heroes Cotton Owens and David Pearson (shown above).

I also got a few requests for info on one of the most ill-fated rear-engine Funny Cars ever, Gary Gabelich’s wild four-wheel-drive Vega panel.

Just more than a year removed from setting the land speed record at 622 mph in his Blue Flame, Gabelich became involved in a venture dreamed up by Bob Kachler and Kenny Youngblood. Built around a monocoque aluminum frame by Paul Sutherland and Al Willard at Sutherland’s Race Car Works shop for around $32,000 – pretty pricey in 1972 – the car sat just 41 inches tall. Ed Pink power was applied to all four tires, which stuck out through the body as shown in the photo here.

While four-wheel-drive had been tested – most famously and successfully on Tommy Ivo’s four-engine Showboat – it didn’t work for Gabelich, and the car was destroyed on its maiden outing at Orange County Int’l Raceway in early 1972, severely injuring the world’s fastest man in the process.

Paul Stringer, a crewmember for Gabelich, reported, “Gary was asked to do some pictures with the car doing burnouts at OCIR on a non-race day, and while doing so, the throttle locked down, and he couldn’t get it back. He went sideways through the rails, rolled several times, lost the front end, and went back through the rails under full power, rolled multiple times, and ended up on its side and on fire. Gary had one hand cut off to the skin on the back, one leg behind his head, and one wrapped around the steering column. From this, the hand was reattached, but the one leg was so fractured that the bone was replaced with a steel rod.”

According to Steve Reyes’ account of the accident, only quick action by Gabelich’s friend, Gary Scow, who tossed Gabelich into the back of his station wagon and headed for the nearest hospital, saved Gabelich's hand and life.

Tom Schiltz sent this photo of the colorful War Wagon Vega panel Top Alcohol Funny Car at the 1973 U.S. Nationals. According to Schiltz, the car was built by the Sikora Bros. in Cleveland and driven by Squeege Jerger, who, with his son, Doug, now builds street rods, including one that won the ultimate prize at the Grand National Roadster Show last January, America’s Most Beautiful Roadster.


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Vauxhall Funny Car driven by Ed Shaver
 
I heard from Alan Currans, who runs the Acceleration Archive website that covers British drag racing, and Pete Aughton, a former Brit now living in Montreal who spent most of his formative years at Santa Pod Raceway in England, as well as regular Insider contributor Mark Gredzinski about their country’s contribution to rear-engine Funny Cars, a Vauxhall VX4/90, which is shown in the gallery at right.

“There was only really one rear-engine Funny Car in the U.K., but like many cars, it went through a number of evolutions,” wrote Currans. “It was originally built by Mark Stratton of Hustler Racing, was sponsored by Castrol, and driven by the late Ed Shaver, who was a U.S. serviceman serving in the UK.” Aughton called Shaver, “a larger than life character.”

The car was sold to Pete Barnett, who ran it for a short while, then it was sold to Tony Froome, who repainted the car as shown in photo 3 and dubbed it Sundance (all his cars were “Sun” something or other). Froome changed bodies to the radical shell shown in photo 4, which Currans believes had been used on a Funny Car-style Competition Altered called Mr Shift.

Gredzinski insists that there were two completely different Sundance cars. “Everyone gets this wrong,” he said. “The Stratton chassis was found to be a couple of inches longer on one side than the other. It was cut up for scrap. Froome and his Team Sun crew built a totally new chassis and body for the 1977 season (to complement their Sundowner Top Fuel machine) -- I watched it being built in Hockley, Birmingham, near where I worked. As I understand it, the car never ran quicker than a nine as it only really shook down and had motor problems, I was told. However, it was a really radical car; super low with the Hilborn blower scoop sticking out of the roof.”

According to Currans, “There was another rear-engine car built, but I am not sure what class it was designed for, and it certainly didn't run much. It was built by Walt Ithel and named Aggravation.”

Australian readers Steve Pullen and Geoff McInnes pointed me to the exploits of their fellow countryman, Norm Oakey, who fielded this wild mid-engine machine, a twin-supercharged Goggomobil, in 1973, with his father, Bill. (According to Wikipedia, the Goggomobil was a microcar produced in the Bavarian town Dingolfing after World War II, certainly making this the most unusual drag car by origin alone.) “You may think it’s more altered than Funny Car, but that would make it a rear-engine altered – even weirder still,” noted Pullen. According to DragList, it appears that he first ran this car (or a similar car) with the engine in front, then switched to a Holden Torana body the next year and to a Camaro in the late 1970s. "Unfortunately,” noted McInnes, “they were all about as successful as Jim Dunn, with spooky handling. Norm and Bill stuck with the back-motor idea but cut their losses and switched to rails. These days, Norm's son and Bill's grandson Dean races a Top Alky Dragster and has won many national events, including the Australian Nationals (our Indy).”

And, finally, the proof that rear-engine Funny Cars are a popular topic comes from Tony Berens, who shared that his 10-year-old used my column here last week as the source for a school report and walked away with an A+. That’s my kind of teacher (and student)!


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The beginning of the end for the Hindsight Funny Car at the 1975 Winternationals
 
If the high point in the all-too-short lifespan of the rear-engine Funny Car was Jim Dunn’s victory at the 1972 Supernationals, surely the low point was Dennis Geisler’s jaw-dropping backflip with Burt Berniker’s Hindsight Duster during qualifying at the 1975 Winternationals.

Because the appearance of any rear-engine car was always a treat for the photographers, all eyes were trained on Geisler at the Winternationals, so his crash was famously captured by many, including National DRAGSTER Photo Editor Leslie Lovett, who shot the sequence at right, and veteran journalist Woody Hatten, who caught the crash on film, which you can see below.

You gotta love Lovett’s sequence for a number of reasons, but I especially dig seeing the inner workings of the car as the body comes off, beginning with the third frame (be sure to use the “larger image” tool in the gallery). In frame four, you can see the entire engine and its relationship to Geisler, the protecting tinwork behind his head, and the fire extinguisher mounted on the outside of the cockpit tin. In frame five, you can see more of the running gear and how the parachute was attached, and in frame six, you can see how close Geisler’s feet were to the front axle and the fuel tank.

The car was heavily damaged in the crash and never rebuilt, ending the saga of a car that Geisler once told me he thought was just on the verge of getting good.

I interviewed Geisler in 1997 and dug up those notes for this article and was pleasantly surprised to hear from Mark Johnson, who headed up oil-pan operations at Milodon and was part of the Hindsight effort from its earliest stages, so let’s go back to the beginning before we get to the end.

Richard Ruth at his Competition Engineering shop in Sun Valley, Calif., built the chassis. The body began life as a standard J&E Duster that then was stretched and tweaked to fit the car by Joel Petersen. Jim Hume at H&H Race Craft did the tin, and Johnson welded up the mods to the fuel tank. (Johnson is also the graffiti artist who did the temporary lettering in the photo of the unpainted Hindsight shown here that actually kicked off this whole thread.) The engine was a typical Keith Black aluminum block stroker.

Berniker’s introduction to the sport actually came through Petersen, whose son was school buddies with Berniker’s son. According to Johnson, Berniker was the engineering/manufacturing genius behind Rodac Air Tools, which was owned by his cousins.

“He was just amazing at setting up factory machining operations around the world,” said Johnson. “He was the nicest guy you could ever want to meet. He just loved nitro engines and drag racing, addicted like the rest of us.”

Jim Adolph tries out the cockpit; Don Baumunk is by his side; Adolph's brother, Pook, stands ready at the engine to light it.

Don Baumunk was the original driver and got the car over 200 mph before he stepped out of the driver's seat.

"The first full launch was rather dramatic," remembers Johnson. "An immediate right turn from the left lane. It was so immediate that the car seemed to be tipping over on its left side. I remember being shocked that Don was able to catch it so quickly that it never even scraped the headers but it sure got everyone's attention. Larry Dixon thought about it for a couple of minutes then recommended an adjustment to the left side torsion bar splines. That was the only chassis adjustment ever made that I know of."

Baumunk recruited Jim Adolph, who worked at B&M with him at the time, to take his place, and they were  followed into the saddle by Geisler. Johnson said that Bob Pickett was considered before Geisler got the nod but backed out once he tried it on for size. “He fit just fine, but I will never forget his face when we let the body down and then closed the windshield flap,” recalled Johnson. “He could not get out of the car fast enough. Not sure if it was some form of claustrophobia or what, but that's when we went to Geisler, who was already running one of Joel Petersen's bodies on his Instant-T AA/FA.”

Just prior to that fateful Winternationals, the team had tested at nearby Irwindale Raceway and chalked up a 6.80 pass and headed to Pomona with that combination in the car. Geisler was first to the starting line in the opening session, and then all hell broke loose, as seen in Hatten's clip below.

"The track was good, and the engine was running a little better than we thought,” said Geisler. “It just hooked up too good. With those cars, your eye level was on the hood, so when the car left the starting line with the front end up, you'd lose your horizon, even if it was only 6 or 8 inches up, and you'd have to look off to the side to see where you were. That's what happened on that run. By the time I realized it wasn't coming back, it was already up to a 45-degree angle."

Added Johnson, “Because we were first, nobody knew what the track was like. Wheelie bars were kinda optional at the time, and we had never seen any indication that we needed them. Of course, the track was phenomenal, and over it went. This, of course, sent everybody in line scrambling to take out clutch. I believe the next up was Leroy Chadderton, and he went into a wheelstand right away, but, being forewarned, he caught it quickly. The rest of the field did fine once they knew what to expect.

“The Pomona deal was the last run,” continued Johnson. “I never saw Burt again -- not for some falling out; we just both went back to our normal lives -- and Don Baumunk worked a while at H&H with Hume, and then started his own shop, sometimes doing tinwork for ‘Snake's’ cars.”

According to Johnson, Berniker died in the late 1970s. “Bert led a very high-pressure life, including cigarettes, coffee, and job stress,” he said. “He died of a heart attack too soon; near as we can figure."

Steve Reyes photo

Reports that Berniker himself had driven the car were inaccurate.

“I think the story that he drove the car may have been morphed from an incident he once told me,” surmised Johnson. “This was way before the wreck. It seems his wife had somehow gotten the idea that he had made a pass in the car, and she really read him the riot act. He had not driven the car and didn't even have a suit or helmet, but he would joke that since he had already been punished for the crime, he felt he had a free pass if he ever chose to drive, but Burt had no desire to drive at all.”

Losing the car was tough for Geisler, who felt that the bugs had finally been worked out of it just before the wreck. "The car charged real hard and generally went straight," he said. "We mostly match raced it, and we were competitive — we were a little slower than the good guys — but not good enough to win any meets. We were just getting good when we ran Pomona."

Whether or not that’s wishful thinking, I can’t help but wonder about what would have happened if he had been right. With today’s technological advances and better chassis designs, could one work today? I don’t know the answer, but I did propose the question to nitro genius Austin Coil about 15 years ago.

"Difficult, very difficult," was Coil's assessment of the problems of building a rear-engine car for today's competition. "Not that I haven't given it a lot of thought, though."

For those who think it's as simple as shoving a Top Fuel-type combination under a Funny Car body, think again. Today’s rear tires are 4 inches wider than they were in the early to mid-1970s, and with better clutches, more power, and better track prep, it might be a recipe for disaster.

"The front end would be about 200 inches too short," Coil laughed. "It would flip overbackwards before it reached the Christmas Tree.

"If you could get it low enough, it would tolerate that kind of rear-end bias. One would have to have a very low center of gravity, which would require the creation of new rear ends, flywheels, clutches, and other stuff that doesn't exist. You'd want to have an opposed motor, rather than a V, to get it lower, and you'd need a rear end with jack shaft, like a quick-change, probably a 9-inch, six-disc clutch. I consider the project not to be feasible.”

Thanks to Steve Reyes for many of the pics in the gallery Tuesday; he actually did a short essay on the breed for DragRace Central that you can find here

Reyes dropped me a line to point Insider readers with long holiday shopping lists toward his cool books, Funny Car Follies: 1965-1970 and Blood, Sweat and Nitro, and for all he's done for this column over the years, how could I resist?

Blood, Sweat and Nitro was released in 2010 in a limited edition of 250 copies. All copies are numbered and autographed by Reyes. Funny Car Follies: 1965-1970 was released in 2011 in a limited edition of 500 copies. Again, all copies are numbered and autographed by Reyes. Each book is $55 plus $6 shipping and handling. They may be purchased by contacting blrenterprise@cox.net. PayPal may be used to pay for them using the Send Money function to blrenterprise@cox.net.

While I’m serving up plugs, I’d also like to let you know about the new website of former NHRA Division 3 and National DRAGSTER photographer Richard Brady. With 26 years as division photographer and many more working for ND, Brady obviously has a large collection of drag racing pics, but you can also check out his wildlife and structures galleries and his handsome new book, Yellowstone, My World.

I'll see you next week with more rear-engine madness. I've received quite a few interesting photos and info from the Insider Nation that will keep this thread going for a while; maybe it even will rival the ramp-truck and wedge-dragster threads!

 

Rear-Engine Funny CarsTuesday, November 29, 2011

It’s funny the things we take for granted. Most of the readers of this column have their own vast mental encyclopedias of drag racing knowledge, so I try not so much to regurgitate the history they already know by heart but to fill in the details that have either been somehow swept to the dark corners of our memories or to bring to light new information that I discover, hence the column’s tagline: The stories behind the stories.

Today, though, the behind part of the story concerns the engine as it relates to our fiberglass friend, the Funny Car. Reader Dave Gibson, of Guelph, Ont., who has been following the sport since the early 1980s, about had a coronary when I mentioned rear-engine Funny Cars of Jim Dunn and Burt Berniker last week.

“Excuse me ... what?” he wrote. (I imagine him sputtering his morning coffee all over his monitor.) “A rear-engine Funny Car bandwagon? Have I been on dope? This is the first time I have ever heard of such an animal. Who, when, where, and what happened? What a strange idea. Looking at the picture, the first question is where is the supercharger air intake? What’s the best e.t. and speed? Who championed? Why go this direction anyway? Where are they now?”

So many questions, Dave. First things first: The reason you don’t remember them has nothing to do with your pharmacological hobbies but more your timing. The rear-engine revolution was pretty short-lived –dying out in the mid-1970s – and definitely didn’t revolutionize the sport the way that the rear-engine dragster did.

Funny Car veteran Dunn probably did more to enhance the breed’s reputation when he drove his back-motor Barracuda to victory at the 1972 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway, the first – and still only (and undoubtedly ever) – national event victory by a rear-engine car, and had it featured in the quarter-mile cult classic film, Funny Car Summer.

Although Dunn was hands-down the most successful rear-engine Funny Car campaigner, he certainly wasn’t the first.

Tom McEwen's rear-engine Hemi 'Cuda took flight in its maiden outing at Lions.

Even though the Funny Car class wasn’t officially recognized until years later, the Hemi 'Cuda of Tom McEwen and Lou Baney is a good place to start. The enterprising duo shoehorned a blown Hemi on 80 percent nitro into the backseat of a ’65 Barracuda, and off they went … literally. In one of its first test sessions at Lions Drag Strip, the high-sitting 'Cuda took flight and crash-landed.

"We didn't know about shapes and spoilers," McEwen told me a few years ago. "We were making short test passes and shutting off, and we kept going faster and faster. At about 160 mph, it had enough air going underneath and over the top that it created lift and took off. I could see the fence posts and pole going by. I shut off and pulled the chutes, then it twisted and came down on its side, then rolled on its roof. It skidded on its roof and ground through the roof to the roll bar and set the headliner on fire."

McEwen wasn’t hurt, and he and Baney built a newer and lower version, which later was sold to Fred Goeske, who ran it as a match race machine with limited success.

Although it also didn’t have a flip-top Funny Car-style body, Top Fuel racer Maynard Rupp’s Chevoom did sport a blown Chrysler Hemi in the rear-seat area of the bright yellow ’66 Chevelle. Rupp entered and exited the fiberglass-shelled creation through the doors, which opened, as did the hood and the trunk.

Doug Thorley's rear-engine Javelin 1 also ended up all wadded up after Bob Hightower flipped it in the lights at Irwindale in June 1969.

Eddie Pauling, who later gained fame as the driver of Johnny Loper’s hard-running flopper in the mid-1970s, was an early experimenter in the rear-engine division with his flip-top Dodge Dart and Mercury Cougar, the Ol’ Whine Maker, which featured a 392 Chrysler Hemi behind his head and ran in the mid-eights at 180-mph range in 1966 and 1967.

Header manufacturer Doug Thorley made the next big splash with a mid-engine car, the Javelin 1, built in 1968 by Woody Gilmore and cloaked beneath an AMC Javelin body. It originally ran an AMC engine but later was converted to 392 power, then a late-model Hemi. Among its crew was Dunn, who was helping his buddy Gary Slusser (who, 20 years later, would tune Joe Pisano's car, driven by Dunn's son, Mike, to national-record-breaking speeds; small world, eh?).

Like the Hemi 'Cuda, Javelin 1 was star-crossed. Thorley initially drove his car, which Norm Weekly also piloted. Dunn, who was between rides then, reportedly nearly drove the car, but he would have had to have quit his job at the fire department, so he backed out. Bob Hightower finally flipped it overbackward in the lights at Irwindale Raceway in June 1969.

Once Don Garlits proved the value and safety of the rear-engine design in a dragster, it was only natural that the Funny Car drivers would give it a go as well.


Woody Gilmore, left, built two rear-engine floppers for Jim Dunn.
Dunn alternated drivelines, sometimes using a reverser and sometimes relying on crew power to get his 'Cuda back to the starting line after a burnout.

When Dunn and longtime friend and supporter Joe Reath commissioned Gilmore to build their rear-engine Barracuda a few years later, Dunn said it was not influenced by his experience with Thorley's car, but by the fear of a fire. As a professional firefighter, he had a healthy dose of respect for fire's fickle finger. I interviewed Dunn at length a few years ago for a National DRAGSTER story, which I dug out for reference and his still-applicable quotes.

Dunn’s car made its official debut at Lions Drag Strip's Grand Premiere in 1972, where it wheelstood immediately and never made it down the track. Prior to the Winternationals, Dunn and Gilmore loaded the front end with 50 pounds of weight and not only qualified (albeit 16th with a 7.15, far behind polesitter Pat Foster's 6.84), but also upset Mike Burkhart in round one. Dunn lost to Jake Johnston in Gene Snow's car in round two but received the meet's Best Engineered Car award.

Dunn scored runner-up honors at the March Meet that year (a broken clutch finger after his final-round burnout gave Ed McCulloch a bye run), and he was runner-up (to Dave Beebe) at Sacramento Raceway’s divisional event after again breaking on his final-round burnout. Dunn scored his first major win in the car at the Division 7 event at Utah’s Bonneville Raceway. He ended the year with the SuperNationals victory, winning the historic final on a Foster red-light.

Many others tried to duplicate Dunn’s success, some of which you can see in the gallery at the bottom of this column. You’ll also see a variety of methods used to handle the induction, which ranged from nothing at all (other than, presumably, air drawn through the open side windows) to roof-mounted scoops or, in the case of Dunn’s cars, vents drawing air through the windshield. One thing they did have in common is that most met quick and inglorious ends due to the fickle handling nature of the cars and driver error.

"You had to be a real chicken," said Dunn. "When you thought it was moving, you'd better be going the other way already. The car would go straight as an arrow four runs in a row, and then on the fifth run, that son of a bitch would turn left; four runs, and it would turn right. It was like a go-kart; my feet were on the front axle. It was scary. It did things for no reason with no warning."

Dunn had plenty of experience with spooky-handling cars from his years in the Dunn-Merritt-Velasco altered; he estimated that of the more than 100 runs he made, only two were done without lifting at least once.

Dunn's car was powered not by the popular 426 Hemi but rather an early 392 Chrysler, and Dunn switched between a direct-drive setup and a conventional two-speed transmission. At national events and points meets, he would run the performance-enhancing two-speed (good for about a tenth, Dunn recalled), but the car's layout did not allow room for both a transmission and a reverser, so he had to be pushed back to the starting line (a common practice in Top Fuel then). At match races, he'd run just the reverser so that he could do track-length burnouts in the high-gear mode. Although Dunn never ran the full national event tour, he match raced up and down the West Coast.


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Steve Reyes
Eddie Pauling's Ol' Whine Maker Cougar ran 8.0s at 180 mph in 1966-67.
 
Dunn opened 1973 with the '72 car by winning Irwindale's Grand Premiere and was runner-up at the track’s 64 Funny Car race, and he debuted a second rear-engine car later that year, built lower and with a more forgiving engine placement. His season highlight was a victory at Irwindale’s divisional event. He finished the season with the rear-engine car and returned to a conventional car in 1974. Dunn’s best time with the rear-engine car was an impressive 6.44.

We know that no other rear-engine car ever won a national event, and, according to my records, no other rear-engine cars even qualified, though Dennis Geisler certainly tried hard with Berniker’s Hindsight car at the 1975 Winternationals, which he flipped just off the starting line in qualifying. (I’ll cover the Hindsight saga Friday.)

In summary and eulogy, Dunn said of the breed, "Even though the rear-engine car was safer and we made a lot of money on it — we had every match race we could handle — it was just too unstable. It really took a steady hand. That was the problem with those cars and why they didn't work. The guys who couldn't make 'em work either didn't have the driving ability or the mechanical ability. I know that sounds cold, but that's the way it was."

OK, that's it for today; I'll be back Friday with the story of the Hindsight crash and more.
 

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