On Sunday, Alexis DeJoria came within just one round of becoming the third female to win an NHRA national event Funny Car crown before she smoked the tires in the final round against Ron Capps, yet it hardly made headlines. The fact that DeJoria is embroiled in an interesting battle for the Automobile Club of Southern California Road to the Future Award honors with (among others) fellow first-year female flopper foe Courtney Force seemed to be of more interest to the racing community than the fact that yet another female racer was challenging for victory in this once male-dominated sport.
Although just 11 women — Shirley Muldowney, Lucille Lee, Lori Johns, Shelly Anderson-Payne, Angelle Sampey, Cristen Powell, Karen Stoffer, Melanie Troxel, Peggy Llewellyn, Ashley Force Hood, and Hillary Will — have won in a Pro category at an NHRA national event (out of about 50 who have competed), the NHRA Sportsman ranks are filled with scores of female national event winners, including this past weekend in Super Gas, where Emily Lewis took home the Wally. Girls racing, and beating, the boys hardly qualifies as a headline anymore. But, of course, it wasn’t always that way in drag racing. It took years before NHRA licensed a female driver to drive a supercharged race car (Barbara Hamilton, 1964), and it wasn’t until 1977 that NHRA crowned its first female champion in Muldowney.
(By the way, a happy birthday today to Shirley!)
In the 1970s, the feminist movement (known then more colloquially as Women’s Lib) was in full bloom and pop culture was enamored of the novel idea of women competing against men, as evidenced by the sky-high ratings for the September 1973 tennis match between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs, a contest hyped as “The Battle of The Sexes.” CBS television execs certainly took notice and created a Challenge of the Sexes TV show, which on three occasions in 1976 to 1978 featured NHRA Drag Racing and all three, of course, featured our own female phenom, Ms. Muldowney.
Drag racing was clearly a good choice for the show as motorsports is one of the few sporting endeavors in which men and women not only compete head to head but do so with no handicaps. Unfortunately, none of the three competitions provided a fair and accurate depiction of this rivalry, and the results — Muldowney lost all three — certainly were not indicative of her potential. And, truth be told, pretty much anytime that she raced a guy — from her earliest gas dragster days through the 1975 Indy final with Don Garlits and probably her whole racing career — the announcers had no qualms about making it a “battle of the sexes.” Until she cemented her reputation as a multitime world champ, she was always on trial.
The first of three — all of which were staged at Southern California’s Orange County Int’l Raceway — was definitely the weirdest. Held just before the 1976 World Finals, which both drivers won, it pitted Muldowney’s dragster against Don Prudhomme’s all-conquering Army Monza. Muldowney was just a few months removed from her historic victory at the NHRA Springnationals in Columbus. Prudhomme, of course, was at the tail end of the most remarkable season in Funny Car history, having already won six of the seven events that year (missing only in Indy) in a car that was nearly unbeatable not only for its performance but its consistency.
Prudhomme’s car was given a two-tenths handicap start — the respective national records were further apart, at 5.63 and 5.97 — and each ran once in each lane, with lane choice for the third heat decided by a coin flip.
Prudhomme won the first round on a holeshot, 6.31 to 6.16 (the ND report surmised that the odd offset had upset Muldowney’s concentration). Between rounds, the duo were interviewed by hall of fame sportscaster Vin Scully, who brought a touch of class to the affair as the lead commentator, along with Phyllis George.
The second round was over quickly as “the Snake’s” Monza lit the tires at the green. Prudhomme pedaled it once, lit ‘em up again, and shut off to watch Muldowney blister the OCIR timers to a 6.03 at 240 mph.
The deciding round was run just before dark, and the cooling (and presumably unprepped) track vexed them both. Prudhomme got off to a decent pass of 6.36 at 233.76 while Muldowney blazed the tires, expertly pedaled, but came in second with a 6.29, again at 240 mph.
Neither driver could have been pleased with their performance, but the prime-time TV publicity windfall for both was no doubt a big one for drivers largely accustomed to working outside the television spotlight. As Nevin R. Johnson once famously said, “This is the kind of spontaneous publicity that makes people!”
In late 1977, Muldowney squared off with Garlits in another two of three at OCIR. They were interviewed by hall of fame announcer Vin Scully but had only one race because breakage claimed Muldowney's car.
Muldowney's team thrashed in the pits to repair a broken rear end but missed the second-round call, forfeiting the challenge to Garlits.
A year later, Muldowney was back for the TV lights at OCIR, with Garlits as her opponent. A lot had happened to Muldowney in the year since, and she had already claimed her first world championship by the time the cameras rolled at OCIR Nov. 18 after the conclusion of the season.
The Muldowney-Garlits rivalry — never a quiet one — had accelerated commensurate with her on-track success and publicity. She put together a tidy three-race winning streak, Columbus again, Englishtown, and Montreal, and was featured in Sports Illustrated and People magazines. Garlits was quoted as saying in one of the many newspaper articles proclaiming her success ”How can those guys let ‘that girl’ beat them like that?”
Garlits hadn’t been able to do it himself, at least not on the national event stage. He went to only two finals that year — runner-up at the season-opening Winternationals and a win at his hometown Gatornationals — and finished a distant ninth in the points but had a lot more success against her on the match race trail, where it was always a heated “battle of sexes” between the two. Prior to the OCIR match, Garlits had beaten her two straight at Fremont Raceway (5.93 to 6.10 and 5.89 to 5.95) and at Irwindale Raceway’s Last Drag Race (6.01 to 6.03 and 6.02 to 6.14).
Unlike the Prudhomme showdown, this one was heads-up. Garlits won the coin toss and first-round lane choice and chose the spectator lane. Muldowney was out first on him — as she almost always was — but ran into tire shake that broke the rear end. Garlits won with a non-representative 6.47 at 220 mph.
The rules of the contest called for just one hour between rounds, but Muldowney’s crew was unable to make the repairs in time, and Garlits was declared the winner. Scintillating drama it wasn’t, but again, the public got to see the face of the feud up close and personal when the show aired the following February.
In November 1978, Muldowney was back to challenge newly crowned Top Fuel champ Kelly Brown, right. Breakage again played a role in deciding the outcome.
Muldowney was game again the following year to take on the man who had claimed her crown, 1978 Top Fuel champ Kelly Brown in the Brissette & Drake Other Guys entry. The two champs squared off Nov. 3 at OCIR, just after the World Finals, and, again, the outcome was more befitting the Twilight Zone than the Challenge of the Sexes.
After the traditional pre-race interviews with Scully and new co-host Cathy Lee Crosby, both drivers burned out but a brake line on Brown’s dragster snapped on the burnout, and he was unable to back up to the starting line. A half-hour later, they were back on the line, where Brown raced to a 6.05 to 6.35 win, with the salt in Muldowney’s wound being a rod out the side of her engine block.
After a prolonged track cleanup, round two went to Muldowney with a piston-eating 6.23 to Brown’s 6.45, but this time, it was Brown’s turn to suffer more breakage; he broke the rear end at the 1,000-foot mark.
By that time, the day had grown short and, invoking the power of TV, the producers announced that to beat the fading light, the final and deciding frame would be held just 30 minutes after the second round. Brown’s team was unable to make the quick turnaround, but rather than give Muldowney the win as Garlits had been awarded against her the previous year, the producers made Muldowney race for it. Apparently good TV was more important than fair competition.
In order to “win” the third round, they decided that she’d have to beat Brown’s best e.t. — his first-round 6.05 — and although she came close with a parts-pitching 6.07, the overall win went to Brown, who questioned out loud, "How can anybody be declared the winner in something like this?"
Other than the PR windfall, it’s probably just as well that the challenges ended there and allowed the racers of both sexes to go on challenging one another as racers instead of opposite sides of the gender tree.
In my early years here at NHRA, in the early 1980s, a lot of the staff spoke reverently of Leroy “Doc” Hales, a former Funny Car racer who had joined the NHRA team after his career and became an integral member of the NHRA Safety Safari in the 1970s and early 1980s. Hales left NHRA just as I arrived, and although I had written about him infrequently (he was most recently mentioned during the topless Funny Car thread), our paths had never crossed until Bernie Partridge’s memorial service earlier this year, a function that the good doctor led eloquently from the podium.
After the service, I introduced myself, told him of my interest in sharing his story, tucked his business card in my pocket, and made a promise to touch base soon. The current Funny-Cars-on-fire thread became “soon” enough.
To answer the most obvious question, yes, Hales was a real doctor – specializing in emergency medical treatment -- and one who put himself through medical school in part thanks to his employment as a Funny Car driver. Hales is best remembered as the longtime driver for Pete Everett in a series of cars that culminated in the Pete’s Lil Demon entries in which he suffered severe burns that ultimately led to his retirement from driving and all of which made him a reliable and compassionate expert when it came to dealing with NHRA drivers in peril.
"Doc" Hales' first floppers, from top: the first Half-Breed topless Funny Car; the New Breed Firebird; and the ex-Dee Keaton Cougar, Wild Breed
Hales came to drive for Everett through his friendship with Everett’s son, Bill, who was a few years ahead of him at Southern California’s Montebello High School. The Everetts had a ’62 Plymouth with a 413 wedge that they raced in Super Stock and, with injection, in B/Gas; the younger Everett got drafted to Vietnam in 1965, and Hales eventually took over the driving chores of the car that later became known as Half-Breed because it had a '62 Plymouth back half and a ’65 Dodge front clip with a late-model supercharged Chrysler Hemi for power.
“The Half-Breed was our first venture into the world of Funny Cars, which was evolving, but it was a very poor attempt at it,” Hales remembered. “We didn't race that version very long. It was a real monstrosity. The car went to the scrap heap, but in 1967 or ’68, Pete traded the engine to Marv Eldridge of Fiberglass Trends for a complete Pontiac Firebird Funny Car – it was a fiberglass body where the hood folded forward and the doors actually opened –powered by an old-style supercharged Chrysler Hemi and a Torqueflite transmission that I consider my first Funny Car. That was the car called New Breed. We had moderate success with that car, then sold it, and Pete bought Dee Keaton's Mercury Cougar flip-top Funny Car.”
After enjoying success locally in Southern California, Everett and Hales were contracted to perform in Hawaii and shipped the car to the islands, where they raced – and beat – every good car in the state, including Top Fuelers, then sold the car to a local racer and came home empty-handed.
Their next car was the first Funny Car constructed by dragster expert Don Long – Long was simultaneously building a chassis jig for Funny Cars as he built their car with the idea of being able to quickly build any single part and ship it to touring racers in trouble back East — and that became the first Pete’s Lil Demon.
During this time, Hales was still in medical school. He had attended USC as an undergrad and would eventually earn his degree at the University of California-Irvine medical school in June 1971 – he was in the first medical school class to graduate there – and serve his internship at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center in June 1972, but his whole life almost changed in mid-May 1971 at a Division 7 points meet at Irwindale Raceway.
At this 1971 Irwindale (Calif.) divisional event, Hales had a catastrophic fire in the Pete's Lil Demon entry that left him with a badly burned right hand.
Racing Mike Halloran in round one, Hales set low e.t. of the meet with a 6.96 at 210.28 mph, but all hell broke loose after the finish line.
“Crowerglide clutches were new, and everyone was trying to figure out how to get them to work,” he remembered. “We finally figured it out, but the car shook like it had never shook before, but I knew it was on a pass. I knew it was going to run real well, but it had shaken so hard that it shook out the front crankshaft seal; at that time, there were no lips to hold it in like you have today.
“The instant I lifted, all of the oil ran out of the front of the engine and onto the red-hot headers, and – boom! – it went up in flames, and I was sitting in the middle of this huge ball of fire. I reached down and pulled the fire bottles, and it quenched it to the extent that it went way down – the flames pulled away from me and back to the front of the car – but when the bottles ran out – after like three or four seconds – it erupted back on me again."
Part of the problem was the small extinguisher payload, the other was that teams were still working the bugs out of how best to use them.
Hales, suited up and ready to run in typical early-1970s Funny Car gear
“The problem back then was what size nozzles to use and where to put them, and it was really by-guess-and-by-golly. It was, ‘Here’s what I think is going to happen if the car catches on fire, so probably we ought to put nozzles here,’ and refilling the Freon bottles was expensive, too, so no one tested the system until you actually used it. We all gave it serious thought, but there were no specifications beyond ‘You had to have five pounds,’ and we actually ran two five-pound bottles.
“We had decent firesuits – I think they were three- or four-layer suits – made of Nomex, and we wore the Nomex underwear. We wore the aluminized face masks with breathers and goggles and open-face helmets with head socks. We had fire boots. Everything was state of the art except for my gloves. Back then, we didn’t realize how important that was. Our gloves were single-layer aluminized on the top and leather on the palm.
“The first thing the fire did was vaporize the parachutes, so I pulled on the hand brake – and at the time, we only had rear brakes, not four-wheel brakes like they have today – but it just happened that fire was coming into the cockpit right at that point where I had the brake fully pulled back.
“My hand was burning up and hurting like crazy, but I know I can’t let go of the brake because the chutes are gone and this is the only way I can stop the car. I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die, and I hope this doesn’t take too long because this really hurts.’
“The fire eventually blew out the rear tires, and the car skidded to a stop. Once the car stopped, the fire was no longer being blown back onto me, so I unbuckled and rolled out the window. We didn’t have escape hatches yet, but there were no windows yet, either. I rolled around on the ground to make sure there was no fire on me.”
Hales suffered second- and third-degree burns to his hand – not a good turn of events for a doctor – and actually finished his surgical rotation with a bandaged and severely injured hand. Despite the peril, Hales returned to the cockpit and drove for another year.
“In June 1972, I finally decided, ‘This is not a prudent thing for a physician in emergency medicine to do.’ I got away with it once without any permanent damage, but I didn’t know if I could get away with it again. It was a painful decision because I loved driving Funny Cars so much.”
Hales didn’t stay inactive long. It was through industry mover and shaker Holly Hedrich – then employed at Keith Black’s, where the Everett team bought its engine blocks -- that NHRA’s Jack Hart heard of Hales’ history and expertise. With his specialty in emergency medicine -- and the fact that UC Irvine’s burn center was the preeminent burn center at the time -- and his racing background, he was a perfect fit at a time when NHRA was ramping up its safety efforts with the reformation of the Safety Safari and exploring new technologies to make the sport more safe.
(Above) In the early 1970s, NHRA began to organize what is now known as the world-famous NHRASafety Safari presented by AAA. The TRW Safety Caravan (above) used a lot of borrowed equipment and not much specialty equipment. (Below) With financial support from Weber, things really improved in 1974. From left are Funny Car hero Don Prudhomme, future NHRA Vice President and then Safety Safari volunteer Cary Menard, and Safari coordinator "Diamond Jim" Annin.
The Safety Safari – which in the 1950s had been an operational-type group dedicated to establishing racetracks and organizing races and not the legendary emergency-reaction team for which it’s now renowned – actually had laid fallow throughout the 1960s until the early 1970s.
“Throughout the 1960s, there was no Safety Safari as we know it today,” said Steve Gibbs, NHRA’s longtime competition director.
“Everything we needed at a race, from trucks to brooms, we had to scrounge up locally. There just weren’t enough events then – only about a handful – to have dedicated equipment to travel the country or even full-time people. A lot of us did a lot of different jobs, and we did a great job, but as time went on, it evolved.”
“There was no caravan of vehicles,” remembered Hales. “I think we had one pickup truck, and everything else came from the local dragstrip. We started almost from scratch, looking at the firesuits and ways to extricate drivers from the cars -- we came up with epaulets on the shoulders of the firesuits to have a handle to get someone out of a car once we’d cut the cage off – and even, ‘What do we use to put the fires out?’ We experimented a lot and discovered that if we put dishwashing soap in the water, it would break the surface tension of the water and would stick wherever we shot it.”
In 1972, there was a rudimentary effort – called the TRW Safety Caravan – with a few vehicles, but in 1974, Weber Performance provided sponsorship to purchase more equipment, and Hurst donated one of its famous Jaws of Life tools. Gibbs and former Top Fuel owner “Diamond Jim” Annin led the charge, and Hales was a valuable addition.
“We just kept adding equipment as we went along, but the one thing we lacked was consistent medical attention,” added Gibbs. “We could find doctors, but we never had much luck with standby physicians. Their heart just wasn’t into it, and some were just there to make some extra money. 'Doc' was different. With his unique background, he was the perfect guy. That was a major step for us and set the standard for the excellent medical care we provide today.”
With medical kit and radio always at the ready, Hales took care of his NHRA patients for more than a decade as a valued member of the Safety Safari.
“I took care of a lot of our people,” said Hales proudly. “I took Shirley [Muldowney] to the hospital when she was in her Funny Car fire at Indy  and helped so many people. We did a lot of good. Our main responsibility was getting the driver safely out of the car without inflicting any further damage and getting them to the hospital ER, which was equipped much better than we are. I would ride in the ambulance if needed to treat them along the way.”
Hales was the NHRA’s only physician for a decade and attended nearly every event in that span. Although his title was NHRA medical director, he was never an employee and never asked for payment of any kind beyond travel and room-and-board expenses.
“Basically, I was an unpaid, highly skilled NHRA volunteer worker, as most were in those days,” he said. “It was basically my vacation and cost me money to do it because I could have been earning a lot of money working an ER shift, but I loved the sport. We had a good time at the track and away from the track, too. The camaraderie was wonderful.”
Hales' accomplishments in the medical community away from drag racing at the time also were especially significant. He was instrumental in having emergency treatment become a board-certified specialty in 1979 and started, from the ground up, one of the first paramedic programs in the nation.
After leaving NHRA and retiring from his medical practice, a very unexpected and unpleasant encounter with the criminal justice system inspired Hales to get a degree in law in 1996, and he devoted himself to helping those struggling in the legal system when he created Justice for the Incarcerated.
“I decided that there were a lot of people who were not getting fair treatment by our criminal justice system,” he said. “When I discover a case like that, I do the litigation to get them unconvicted or out on parole. It’s very gratifying work. Nationwide, we’ve released several hundred people from death rows because DNA evidence has subsequently shown they were not the perpetrator."
At one time, Hales also was a deacon in his nondenominational church and a volunteer chaplain for Racers For Christ. He also earned an Adult Ministry certificate from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago and today does work for an international prison ministry known as Kairos for men in prison in California.
As fulfilling as his life became after drag racing, he certainly looks back fondly on his time behind the wheel.
“It was exciting and a lot of fun,” he explained. "Back then, you could do it as a hobby – it was an expensive hobby – but you didn’t have to have mega corporate sponsorship to do it.
“I just loved it. To be a paid Funny Car driver in Southern California in the early 1970s? I mean, c’mon, it was a dream job.”
Friday’s column about John Force’s “firefighting Funny” and the rules changes that have followed made me want to wade back into the history a bit to talk about the longtime scourge of the Funny Car set that Whit Bazemore once famously described as “like riding inside a Molotov cocktail.” After dragsters and gassers dominated the sport’s fan polls of the 1960s, the popularity of the Funny Car class exploded in the early 1970s, and, unfortunately, so did many of the cars themselves.
Having been transformed from steel-bodied, altered-wheelbase factory cars with engines carrying light loads of nitro into full-on, fiberglass-bodied race cars with loads exceeding 90 percent nitro and filled with engine and drivetrain parts not all used to the stress of several thousand horsepower, the class became a powder keg in the 1972 season with a number of nasty blazes consuming the colorful machines and injuring their drivers. In 1972, the sport’s magazines were filled with stunning images of drivers such as Shirley Muldowney, John "Cogo" Eads, Leroy "Doc" Hales, Jake Johnston, Sammy Miller, Barry "Machine Gun" Kelly, and Ron Fassl riding out flaming top-end barnburners.
When the fiery trend continued into 1973 with high-profile fires at the Gatornationals involving Butch Maas, Jim Nicoll, and Al Bergler -- the popular Maas suffered burns to 50 percent of his body and spent two months in the local hospital burn center -- NHRA took strong action.
Since 1971, Funny Car racers had been required to have 5 pounds of Freon FE-1301 onboard to combat fires. Freon seemed a perfect choice because it was odorless, clear, and nontoxic and extinguished fires by chemical inhibition -- rather than cooling or smothering, it broke the chain reaction of the combustion process. But after the rash of fires in 1972-73, it was clear that something needed to change.
After consulting with SEMA, racers, and manufacturers, within weeks, NHRA had laid out an aggressive plan that quadrupled the amount of fire-extinguishing agent required. Prior to the next event on the schedule, the June Springnationals, all Funny Cars had to be equipped with 20 pounds of Freon or Halon fire-extinguishing agent, divided in such a way that 15 pounds be directed onto the engine compartment by means of an outlet placed in front of each bank of headers and 5 pounds from a separate dedicated bottle to the driver through the means of an atomizing nozzle placed at the driver’s feet.
Also, teams were required to add "fire windows" -- measuring no less than 25 square inches – on the firewall so that a driver could get an early warning that a fire was brewing in the engine compartment. Both of these rules continue to be part of the Rulebook today, though Freon and Halon long ago were replaced by better extinguishing agents, and, as outlined Friday, so much more has been done throughout the years in the form of better safety equipment and better prevention methods.
Another key part of the April 1973 rule announcement was the banishment of the standard open breathers atop the valve covers that often fed fires. Dedicated dump tubes ending in a catch can were now required. The group also recommended better and more encompassing chassis tin to help seal the cockpit from fire.
Former National DRAGSTER Editor and Insider regular Bill Holland wrote two informative pieces in May addressing the problem and offering historic background. He pointed to the 1963 loss of Top Fuel racer and NHRA Division 7 Tech Director Chuck Branham, who succumbed to burn injuries suffered in the Pomona Valley Timing Association’s Starlite dragster. Although firesuits had been in infrequent use for a few years – Holland credited Tommy Dyer, wheelman of the Ansen & Pink dragster, as the first to wear one of Jim Deist’s safety suits – their use was not widespread until NHRA mandated them in 1964, requiring “aluminized, reflective, heat-resistant, and flame-proof suits.” Eventually, NHRA, working with SEMA, developed a specification for these suits, the first known as Spec 3-1 in 1970, that required a suit to withstand 1,750 degrees of heat for a minimum of 10 seconds without the inside temperature reaching more than 250 degrees. Spec 3-2 came two years later and upped the external temperature to 1,850 degrees while lowering the internal requirement to 180 degrees. The spec has been continually upgraded (and the method of measurement changed), but today, Funny Car drivers wear suits designated as Spec 3.2A/20, which are required to have a Thermal Protective Performance (TPP, developed by DuPont in the 1970s) rating of 80 and keep a driver safe from second-degree burns for 40 seconds.
In the wake of all this, two companies – Sperex Corp. (maker of the famous VHT traction compound) and Surface Controls, of Azusa, Calif. – also developed fire-retardant coatings for the fiberglass Funny Car bodies that slowed the burn rate significantly and were tested extensively. Again, today, all Funny Car bodies are required to be coated with an SFI Spec 54.1 flame-retardant covering or coating.
Just prior to the next event on the schedule, NHRA also took delivery of a pair of specially constructed "entry suits" for use by its Safety Safari emergency crews. The suits, built by Filler Safety Equipment to Spec 3-2, would be used to extricate drivers from burning vehicles and to combat fire at close proximity. Specially constructed hoods allowed the wearers to effectively function inside a fire while retaining full vision thanks to lenses made of a space-age material known as Kapton, made of 24-karat gold sandwiched between layers of Mylar, the same design used by astronauts of the era.
The changes resulted in a noticeable drop in the number and severity of Funny Car fires. Of course, there were exceptions (Shirl Greer’s blaze at the 1974 World Finals immediately leaps to mind), but the NHRA’s founding motto – “Dedicated to Safety” – remained a steadfast proclamation that in the decades since has reduced the number of all-engulfing Funny Cars to but a few thanks to the numerous safety improvements and rules I outlined here last week.
On Friday, I'll share the insights of the aforementioned Hales, who used his experience as a medical doctor and former Funny Car racer to help improve driver safety after his driving career ended.
I also mentioned last week the Drag Racing USA magazine Letters to the Editor marathon that got this whole thread about Funny Car fires started. I was pleased to receive from Mark Collins a printed copy of the letter that he wrote to the magazine summarizing the whole thread. You can read it here.
John Force had quite a trial by fire in the early 1990s, including the famous incident in Memphis, Tenn. (below), after which he proclaimed, "I saw Elvis at 1,000 feet," and led to the creation of an over-the-top design to combat the fires.
One of my earliest memories of following drag racing through magazines – how we all got started, right? – was a Letters to the Editor thread in Drag Racing USA about Funny Cars on fire. It was 1973, and there had been some nasty fires the previous year, including a particularly bad one for Butch Maas at the 1973 Gatornationals.
Funny Car fires were becoming a bit of an epidemic, and NHRA had responded in various ways with beefed-up requirements on driver suits and fire bottles, but a few began to address the issue from a different angle, reasoning that removing the flaming fiberglass body was key to improving safety. The idea seemed perfect. Get rid of the most flammable and longest-burning item of the car to reduce the driver’s exposure to the flames and at the same time improve driver vision.
Ideas poured in each month, with suggestions about ways to safely jettison the body and how to control it after its removal.
Most of the ideas were impractical and quickly forgotten, but some 20 years later, the idea resurfaced from the fertile mind of John Force, who seemed to perpetually be on fire in the early 1990s. After catching fire, spinning out, and rolling over at the 1992 Memphis, Tenn., event – which inspired his immortal “I saw Elvis at 1,000 feet” quote – Force had had enough and set out with crew chief Austin Coil to build one of the most gadget-laden floppers in history, a car that he expected would change the way people looked at Funny Car fires.
I mentioned this car in my recent 30th anniversary column, and a few of you begged for details and photos, so here we are.
When word of Force’s plan reached the National DRAGSTER offices, I was granted rare permission for an unbudgeted trip to Noble, Okla., to check it out. Force had gotten himself booked into a four-car match race there during the track’s Division 4 Lucas Oil Series event, which also was hosting the first National DRAGSTER Alcohol Showdown bonus event, so there were deemed enough good reasons for me to be there.
Force admitted that the car was a knee-jerk reaction to the Memphis crash, where the fire not only consumed the body but also took out the rear tires, sending him into a flat spin in the guardrail in the shutdown area. He finally slid to a stop in the sand trap, tipping over as he entered it sideways.
Force, who had just won his first two championships in 1990 and 1991, told me then, “Two years ago, I was like a crazy kid. A lot has changed mentally. You get a little older, you start looking at your kids, and you think, ‘What can I do to help myself?’ All of a sudden, at 43 years old, I’m starting to think, 'Y’know, I want to be around to enjoy being world champ.’ ”
John Force added aluminum shields to the butterfly steering wheel, a precursor to today's "doghouses."
NHRA granted conditional blessing to the Force team and chassis builder Murf McKinney to experiment with a body-ejection system, and the fertile minds in the Force and McKinney camps went beyond that to address every other area they believed would make life easier for the driver.
Among the secondary additions were aluminum shields on the butterfly steering wheel – the precursor to today’s “doghouses” that shield the driver’s hands on the steering wheel – and a fire-extinguisher activation button on the brake handle. For years, the fire extinguishers were activated by a lever on the brake handle, which required the driver to open his hand to squeeze. “If you miss the handle, you don’t want to let go of the brake to regrab; it’s just instinct," Force reasoned. With the button, the driver would never have to let go of the brake handle.
A spring-loaded “positive action” parachute release was mounted on the inside of the car’s roof with a 6-inch silver button as the trigger. All Force would have to do was “slug it once” to activate the chutes. The old method relied on handles that had to be pushed or pulled far enough to release the chutes, and the driver was never sure if he had moved them far enough. The new design was either on or off and visible to the driver.
McKinney also mounted a pair of 6-inch aluminum billet wheels to the underside of the chassis to give the car better directional stability in case of a tire failure. Instead of the chassis dropping down onto the track, it theoretically could roll on the aluminum wheels.
With the push of a steering-wheel-mounted button, the body would be unlatched at the nose.
But, of course, the big deal of the day was the ejection system, which Force proclaimed was a last-resort measure. In the event of a huge fire, Force would be able to eject the body using a steering-wheel-mounted button whose fail-safe was that it first required that the extinguishers had already been set off.
Pushing the button began an air-activated two-step process that first unlatched the body at the front, then -- using tall air cylinders mounted vertically by the front wheels that fit into cups molded inside the body -- lifted the body about a foot off the chassis. The theory was that once the body was raised high enough, onrushing air would peel it from the chassis.
The body was tethered to the chassis by a 20-foot-long steel aircraft cable and was attached to a third parachute tucked under the body in the area behind the cockpit just in case the primary outside chutes had burned off.
The car only ran in that configuration in Noble and was never put to the test. I asked Force yesterday whatever became of the project, and he said that NHRA wasn’t thrilled with the whole body-ejection idea and shut it down but that some elements of the things designed on that car remain a part of cars today – chassis skid plates have replaced those wheels, but they’re mandatory now -- and other elements were obsoleted by automatic systems made mandatory by NHRA.
Typically, Force was on his way to a meeting and begged forgiveness for not having his head in the interview but recommended that I get the details from Robert Hight.
The Leahy system is perhaps the biggest and most crucial change in what a Funny Car driver does in a fire, in that it’s an all-in-one, fire-and-forget system. Once the driver activates the fire bottles, it simultaneously shuts off the ignition and the fuel supply and deploys the parachute.
“There were a lot of schools of thought back in the old days,” said Hight. “Should you hit the fire bottles first to put out the fire, then hit the chutes, so maybe the chutes don’t burn off? But, by that time, you’ve also covered a lot of [shutdown] territory. Or should you hit the chutes first – with the chance of them burning off – and then hit the fire bottles? There wasn’t a right or wrong way, but this way, it all happens at once.”
Additionally, on any blower backfire that pops the pressure-sensitive manifold burst panel, the ignition and fuel are automatically shut off – with no driver intervention necessary -- and the chutes deployed.
In the 20 years since, NHRA-mandated rules have been implemented to further enhance driver safety, including ballistic blankets and diapers, mandatory fresh-air systems plumbed to helmets, shielded parachute cables, head and neck restraints, roll-cage shrouds, carbon-fiber brakes, and shutoff controller, to name but a few. In the 1992 Rulebook, the Funny Car section had five pages; the 2012 version fills 13 pages.
“With the diapers we have today, the whole mess and fire can be contained in the bag and never gets onto anything,” he added. “I kicked two rods last weekend in Englishtown, and we had no oil that got out.”
Hight also pointed out that today’s synthetic oils have a higher flash point and that header coatings have made a huge difference, but the body coating – applied to the underside of all bodies and mandatory under NHRA rules – was a game changer.
“John had a fire the other day, and there were flames coming out of the wheelwells and around the headers, but the body suffered zero damage,” said Hight. “He ran it the next run. It was unbelievable. We’ve never had it so good.”