Drag racing fans still love the printed word (thank goodness for me!), which explains why a lot of us still have library-worthy collections of old drag racing magazines – Super Stock, Drag Racing USA, Drag News, Hot Rod, Popular Hot Rodding – sitting on our shelves. And for many hard-core fans, their collection might not be considered complete without the book pictured at right, the 1977 NHRA U.S. Nationals Yearbook.
I’ve been in this publishing business for more than a quarter-century, and it’s still, hands-down, the prettiest, most impactful drag racing book I’ve ever read. (Yes, better in some ways than anything I’ve ever been in charge of or involved with during my time here at NHRA, which I think is some pretty high praise.) The book, written by a virutal unknown in the field, captures the essence of Indy in beautifully descriptive words with great photos and a wonderful layout. If there were one book I wanted to give to someone to describe what Indy feels like, this would be it.
The sad truth is that for some reason, my collection does not include one of these wonderful books, and I hadn’t even seen a copy for years, but thanks to Insider reader Craig Hughes, I was able to enjoy it once again. Craig was interested in the story behind the book and asked if I’d ever done a column on the book or if I’d be interested in doing so and offered to lend me his copy. (Yes, he made sure he underlined the word “lend” in his email, and I don’t blame him. I'm going to apologize right now for the quality of the photos here, but there was just no way to scan the book on a flatbed scanner without risking damaging it.)
My old pal Todd Veney, with whom I collaborated on the writing of a series of NHRA season annuals for UMI Publications in the early 1990s, echoed my praise for it. "Phenomenal," he called it. "I've read it about 100 times." His copy comes courtesy of his famous dad, Ken, who recieved a copy of the book from the publisher. (Ken was runner-up in Pro Comp that year to Dale Armstrong.)
When Hughes' book arrived, I couldn’t wait to get at it. Cracking it open, it even smelled old, that musty smell that books get when they’re packed away, but I tore through its now-nostalgia-laced pages again in a couple of hours, marveling at not only the writing and the photography, but also at the completeness of the package even 34 years later.
The book not only tells the story of the event, from the early-arriving campers to the crowning of champs, but also has a great stats package that includes complete ladders for Top Fuel (32 cars!), Funny Car, Pro Stock, and Pro Comp (32 cars as well!) and a thick section with a headshot, car shot, short bio, and autograph for all 96 of the drivers who qualified for those fields (can you imagine how hard it must have been to get all of those 96 signatures?). There’s also a huge Sportsman class-winners section with car shots of ALL the class winners.
The writing is incredibly colorful and descriptive. No nuance is left untouched, from the preparations made by the teams to those made by the concession staff and along the Manufacturers Midway, along with knowing comments about how, day after day, the same routine is played out: the same drive to the track, the ever-more-familiar security guards and ticket takers. How clutch dust just never seems to come off your hands; how tires get heavier as the weekend wears on. (“They slip in one’s hands and fall against one’s chest, leaving their rings of black.”)
Early on, the author compares the scene to a medieval tournament, how the tents in the campground are like those in the fields of yore; the drivers become knights in their driving armor, their cars the steeds (the dragsters, it is pointed out, even have lance-like bodies). The pit area is their kingdom, the transporter the castle, its rear doors open like drawbridges. The announcer’s voice is the trumpet, calling them to battle.
Each day has its own chapter, and the results are reported, but not in newsy fashion. Larry Lombardo’s crash and fire in Bill Jenkins’ Monza and Ronnie Manchester’s loan of his car to the team and Dale Emery's wild nose-wheelie Funny Car crash are recounted in detail. The author clearly knew the cars, the engines, and the crews and was up on current news, such as Billy Meyer’s fire in Montreal just weeks earlier.
He captured the look, the feel, the smell of everything from the first rays of day, when the dirt areas of the pits are undisturbed and the grass wet with dew, to the trailer lights flickering on and the whir of the electric winch. Subtleties such as “tires and fuel tanks shielded from the burning sun” are noted, and astute observations are made even about fellow members of the media.
He describes the movement of the crowd as it tramples the grass and raises clouds of dust in the gravel; how kids race from trailer to trailer as they arrive but by mid-afternoon are sapped of energy by the sun and how their heads start to droop and weary wives just hope to survive the day.
Technical details about the cars and procedures are explained in everyday but colorful terms. Photos of the campgrounds and campers huddled in sleeping bags or simply passed out from too much partying share space with race photos, all of which are handsomely laid out through the pages.
After I was done marveling at the book and how it reminded me of things I forget about the event or take for granted, the detective work began. Now I, too, wanted to know the story behind the story.
Externally, the book carried only its title and the company name, Bold Horizon Enterprises. Google came up empty. But inside, tucked away in the back between the class-winners photos and the ladders, was a brief acknowledgements page listing those involved in the project and signed by John C. Plisky. There was a phone number in the credits, but, naturally, it was no longer in service, but it was connected to a city in New Jersey. A Google search combining those terms yielded a phone number and led to one of those “This may be the weirdest question you hear this week …” introductions and a series of good news-bad news moments.
John Plisky, a man with a dream
The good news is that I reached John Plisky. The bad news is that it wasn’t that John Plisky. The good news is that it was his son. The bad news is that his father passed away last year at age 71 from complications of pneumonia. The good news is that his son was involved in the publication and had great recall of the history of the yearbook. And there’s also one piece of amazing serendipity that I’ll save for the end of the column.
The “In retrospect” page in the book shared information about the team that the senior Plisky had assembled, which included professional photographers Jim Joern and Steve Phillips; the latter also served as the book’s graphic designer. Also on the team were New Jersey high school sophomore Peter Pasley and his older brother Richard and Plisky’s sons, John and Jimmy, whose “boundless enthusiasm” their dad credited.
What came to light after my interview with his son is that the publication was a grand dream, pushed forward in the face of impossible odds, cost, and logistics through sheer love of the sport and determination of heart.
“My dad grew up in Linden, N.J., and they used to run cars at the local airport there in the 1950s, and his dad would take him to the races, and he later began to take my brother, Jimmy, and I to the races in Englishtown in the early ‘70s, and we even drove out to the Supernationals in California in 1972,” explained Plisky.
“He knew that there was always an annual publication after each year’s Indy 500, and he wanted to do one for drag racing’s biggest event. He had very romantic notions about the whole idea, but he was very naïve. He had no experience in publishing or advertising or selling books and no cash-flow-management skills, but his enthusiasm was infectious. He just lit up when he talked about doing it, and that inspired the people to get involved.”
The senior Plisky was so committed to the project that he quit his job at an insurance agency and dug into the family savings to finance the book. “It was a huge, huge leap,” his son admitted.
The team pulled together throughout the Labor Day weekend, arriving early each day at the track and staying well past dark to capture the entire scene.
The junior Plisky, age 12 in Indy
“I was on the line shooting photos, but none of them made it in the book,” said the younger Plisky, who was 12 at the time (photo guidelines have since changed significantly). “I remember leaving every night half dead and covered in rubber specks and throwing away my T-shirt knowing that my mother was never going to wash it.
“My dad wasn’t a very accomplished photographer, and we shared an Olympus OM-2. He took the driver portraits for the back of the book; I got all of the autographs. The drivers had no idea what this was going to be, and it was more likely that a kid would get the autograph than an adult, but the drivers were very accommodating.”
And once the event ended, the work was just as daunting.
“I helped cull through hundreds of rolls and rolls of slide film to find the images for the book,” he recalled. “It was like, ‘OK, we need a headshot picture of Prudhomme,’ and I’d find them all, and we’d decide which one was best.”
His dad, whose only journalism experience came from a few articles he had written for Super Stock, did all of the writing, an impressive feat, and one that clearly came from the heart as much as the fingers.
“You can see his romantic notion of the event comparing it to knights in shining armor,” said his proud son. “That’s the way he looked at the whole process.”
As time-consuming and mentally draining as the writing must have been, bigger hurdles lay ahead.
“We didn’t have much of an ad budget; almost everything went into getting it created,” said Plisky. “He underestimated the cost and the cash flow of laying it all out upfront. I think he convinced the photo-separation people to do all of the separations before being paid. I remember going to the printer up in New Hampshire, trying to convince the guy to release the book so we could fill orders. It went something like, ‘Well, I don’t have the money now, but the ads are in National DRAGSTER next week …’ It was definitely an adventure.”
His son couldn’t remember exactly when the book was completed, but if you believe the flyleaf, it was 1978 by the time it hit the market, which only made selling the book that much harder.
Plisky today, holding the yearbook and one of the ads for the book.
“Artistically, it blew everything away, but I’m not sure how many we sold. It wasn’t that successful at the time. I think the original print run was 10,000, but I know we didn’t sell anywhere near that many,” he admitted. “The problem was, it was a 1977 yearbook, and once it turned to 1978, there were some people who wanted to look back, but it became stale. There were other people who thought it was the event program and not a yearbook, so the sales tapered off pretty quickly. We drove out to the ‘78 Indy event and sold some. At the time, I think the official souvenir program sold for a buck, so it was a hard sell at $7. People who looked at it said they had to have it, but to get them to look at a $7 book wasn’t easy.”
But with a handsome finished product in his hands, the senior Plisky hoped it would impress NHRA officials to do one the following year as well.
“My dad thought that NHRA would be blown away by it because it was so much better than the program was at the time, and he’d done all of the thinking and put it all together, and that they might incorporate him into the fold and put him in charge of doing it,” he said. “He had meetings with Wally Parks and NHRA’s merchandising person at the time, but NHRA already pretty much had a procedure and people in place at the time for the program, and they didn’t believe anyone would spend $7 on a yearbook.”
Father and son shared an office through the end of his life, administering retirement plans for small companies; they talked occasionally about the book, and the senior Plisky died knowing that his book was much-appreciated in the end.
“It ended up costing him money – he went through a lot of his savings – but if he had the chance to do it every year, he would have been living his dream. He would have been over the moon. In the end, he knew that it was appreciated; it’s just too bad it wasn’t a business success.”
I couldn’t agree more, and I wish more people had the opportunity to see it. Plisky says he has considered making the book available again – everything from a DVD or CD-ROM containing just the raw pages up through on-demand publishing – to share his father’s work, but, like the original, there’s no way to gauge whether the expense would match the demand (I’d sure be interested to hear how much demand there is; you can email your name and address to firstname.lastname@example.org with "US Nationals Yearbook" in the subject line to be notified of any developments).
I’ll close this inspirational tale with the amazing tidbit I promised earlier in the article. Well, “amazing” perhaps is the wrong word, but “appropriate” seems, well, appropriate.
Although I got the email about the book from reader Hughes on June 21, I had been holding off work on the article so that I might present it around the time of this year’s Indy event. I interviewed Plisky on Tuesday and told him my plan was to publish it today, Aug. 26.
That’s when he told me that tomorrow will be the one-year anniversary of his father’s passing.
“What a great tribute to me dad,” he said.
Again, I couldn’t agree more.
Truth be told, I hadn’t planned on continuing the Chi-Town Hustler/”Jungle Jim” Liberman thread past last Friday’s column, but, as seems to always be the case here, one pile of great memories only serves as creative fuel for the fire for the rest of you to burn up my email with even more salutes and tributes. Too bad neither had a wedge Top Fueler.
Walking, talking drag racing photo great Steve Reyes saw the Hustler in its earliest days while a photographer in Northern California and passed along the photo at right of the Hustler Barracuda pre-ramp truck, circa 1968. Pitted to the right, also on a tagalong trailer, is Terry Hedrick’s Seaton’s Shaker Corvair.
“Jon Asher would write about the Chi-Town Hustler’s burnouts in All-American Drags magazine in early 1967 before they came west,” he recalled, referencing Friday’s discussion about when the Hustler took to fogging out racetracks with long smoky burnouts. “Those guys set the bar for smoky burnouts. I think I saw Pat Minick, Ron Colson, Frank Hawley, Clare Sanders, Minick’s son [Wayne], and Pete Williams all drive the Hustler. Maybe ‘Jungle’ drove it in SoCal, but I’d believe Russell Long drove before ‘Jungle’ would have on the West Coast. Back then, Russell was the go-to guy if you needed a substitute driver for your AA/FC. The [Liberman] poster at Long’s was a centerfold from [Popular Hot Rodding magazine] that I shot at OCIR.”
I also mentioned last Friday how the Hustler was a Ford (Mustang II) for a short time when Pete Williams drove in 1977, and Reyes supplied this photo of the car in its Hustler afterlife as the Drastic Plastic entry of Tom Motry, driven here by the late Ron Correnti.
“I watched it crash at a PHR event at Martin, Mich.,” Reyes recalled. “It hit the sand pile at the end of the track when the chute failed. The car stood on its nose and then flopped on the roof in the sand. I had pix, but they stayed with Argus [Publications, publisher of PHR] when I left there in 1994. I think the crash was in 1973-75.
“When I stayed at 'Jungle’s' house in 1973, I awoke and ventured downstairs to his work area to find him taking hits off a bong and building an engine. Here’s a pic of 'Jungle’s' rig, the ramp truck [barely visible to far left], with a second Funny Car in front of his house in Pa."
Guy Radcliffe saw Liberman in his heyday, seeing “Jungle” race several times in 1970 and 1971 at Atco Raceway in New Jersey. “Due to economic hardship, I wouldn't see 'Jungle' race again until August 1977 (again at Atco),” he wrote. “For those who loved nitro Funny Cars in the early ‘70s, 'Jungle's' death became symbolic of the absence of Funny Cars to the local dragstrip. Nitro Funny Cars had been something you could see at the local dragstrip once or twice a month or more. Now, you can only see them on TV.”
Another reader, Bob Lukas, shared his "Jungle” memories, too. “I was 17 in 1964 and could not see enough of the early A/FX cars always going to Connecticut Dragway, Dover Drag Strip (I first saw Phil Bonner there and 'the Grump' with Doc Burgess and the Black Arrow Plymouth), Lebanon Valley, Englishtown, or wherever they had an early Funny Car meet. I would catch a ride from the local speed shop owner (who grew up with my dad); all you had to do was show up early Sunday morning, and the racers mostly treated me like one of them. I became good friends with the late Bill Flynn from his speed shop and later Al Hanna.
Austin Coil’s comments about a four-wide race at Bytron Dragway stoked some nostalgia for Gary Crumine, too. “Man, that brings back memories,” he wrote. “Ron Leek would put on four-wide gasser shows where another famous local car, the Shake, Rattle and Run ‘57 Chevy, was cleaning up everywhere it went. Between the SRR and the Hustler, we would get a big match race at least twice a month. Then, when Funnys took off, we’d get guys like ‘Fast Eddie’ Schartman, Arnie ‘the Farmer’ Beswick, ‘Dandy Dick’ Landy, Mr. Norms … you name it. Wow, what good memories I have of it. They never disappointed us.”
Here's a really great peek down the barrel of the eight-hole injector as "Jungle" gets sideways at US 131, From the DRAGSTER files; photographer unknown
Tom Haman also added his recollections to the growing Liberman memories pile. “I was a track photographer for Cordova Raceway in Illinois in the mid-‘70s to early ‘80s,” he wrote. “I always made it to the World Series of Drag Racing every year as it was the place for the big boys to tune up prior to Indy because it was always the weekend before the Nationals. Anyhow, it was either '76 or '77, and I was shooting on the tower side at the starting line. ‘Jungle’ was in my lane (I don't remember who was in the other lane). He took off hard with flames shooting skyward in the cool, humid August Saturday night when he got to half-track and popped the blower at least 150-plus feet in the air (no fire, just BOOOOM!). It split at the base of the Crower eight-hole injector, sending the injector with scoop and the blower flying in two separate paths. I followed the injector/scoop to the high dewy grass, where it sent out clouds of steam. I thought I had the souvenir of a lifetime! I was about to pick it up when one of the crew guys came up and said it was still repairable. Being just a kid of 21 and trying to cooperate, I gave it up. On the other hand, a spectator a bit further up track jumped the chain-link fence, grabbed what was left of the blower shell, and hightailed to parts unknown. He got away clean, but I really wanted that Crower injector and scoop.”
Ma Green, a West Coast drag racing management staple, of course crossed paths with Liberman and company, but her memory is painted from a different brush. “Back in the late '60s, Chi-Town came to Sacramento for a booked-in race. It had been to Hawaii just prior, and the body was damaged on the way back, so it showed up in Sacto in gray primer. We had become friends with the guys, and they asked Kenny (my hubby at the time) if he could throw some letters on the car. They didn't want permanent lettering, so he used poster paint. It looked great; however, every time they ran, some of it would flake off, so Kenny spent most of the day doing one side and then the other trying to keep lettering on the car. Don't know if Austin remembers that or not.”
Dennis Friend commented on the Richard Wood photo I used to illustrate the Charger’s smoky burnouts. “I was fortunate enough to be at Rockford that day, and you see one thing done to the Charger was to keep the smoke out of the cockpit,” he observed, then added, “Don’t get me wrong, 'Jungle Jim' was great, but I think Arnie Beswick deserves a lot of credit for where Funny Car racing went before J.J.”
Where Funny Car racing might have went with Liberman also was discussed last Friday in Bobby Doerrer’s great recollections of how the late Vinnie Napp was a driving force behind a new 7-Eleven sponsorship for “Jungle,” so I was happy to hear from my buddy David Napp, Vinnie’s son, who now owns the fabled Raceway Park facility with brother Alex and who clearly was genetically imprinted with admiration for Liberman.
“It was great to see my dad's name in your column along with such notables,” he wrote. “He rarely spoke of two people who passed before I was born. One was his father, the other was ‘Jungle.’ I think it hurt him too much to lose not only a friend but someone he had great aspirations for in business as well.
“As a kid, I heard the legendary tales from everyone, but not from Dad. In the infrequent times he did, he spoke highly of ‘Jungle”, with a look of ‘what could have been’ in his eyes. He tried to find another driver who had that ‘it’ quality that is indefinable but obvious when one possesses it. Many came close for him, but none equaled Jim.
"Jungle Jim" Liberman, E-town 1975, en route to Summernationals win
“I still have the black and white composition notebook my father kept for the 7-Eleven East vs. West Funny Car Nationals, Aug. 21, 1977. Kosty Ivanoff, Castronovo, Lani, ‘Jungle,’ Eastern Raider, Cassidy, Frantic Ford, Burgin, Mineo, Burgeois, Loper, Trojan Horse, Creasy, Fireball Vega are scribbled in pencil. On one page regarding Jim, it says, ‘Jungle Himself 2000, (loaned 2500).’ Guess my pop was a part-time banker for a racer in need. Along the bottom, the attendance: 5,706. Wish I had been one of the lucky people that day. My brother Alex can only remember my parents being dressed up and dropping him at a friend's before the funeral, but that's the only ‘Jungle" memory he has. Being born in 1976, I never got to see the legend himself. Luckily, Steve Bell came across video of ‘Jungle’ racing here, and it was played on ESPN. We finally got to see ‘Jungle Jim’ race down our strip. Thought I'd never see it. A great thrill to say the least.”
And with that, I’m going to swing out of here on a “Jungle Jim” vine. See you Friday.
Lots of thumbs-up (and one thumbs-down, as you will read) for last Friday’s column about the Chi-Town Hustler and “Jungle Jim” Liberman, which I guess should well be expected seeing as how they’re two of a handful of surefire winning column topics by themselves.
Longtime automotive journalist and pal Rick Voegelin explained the outpouring to me this way: "Rick's Rule of Journalism No. 1: You can't go wrong with a column about Austin Coil, 'Jungle Jim' Liberman, AND the Chi-Town ramp truck!”
Although Austin Coil didn’t mention it – and I didn’t ask – former Top Alcohol Funny Car pilot Pete Duhart recalled seeing Liberman also drive the Hustler at Irwindale “on/about 1970 or 1971,” and longtime SoCal fuel fan Cliff Morgan said that he saw the same act at Orange County Int’l Raceway. “I remember that he ran like a 6.98 in the car, and I was surprised that it could run that quick cuz it was kinda old at the time,” recalled Morgan. “I was also surprised that ‘Jungle’ drove the car, but now I know why after reading the latest column. Didn't know that ‘Jungle’ hung out with the Chi-Town guys. I think this run was maybe 1970? The better cars could run sixes, and the Hustler wasn't that competitive that day, but it was cool just to see it run and to see 'Jungle' drive it.”
Gary Crumrine joshed that I should have known that it was Liberman in the photos because he had considerably more hair than the follicly challenged Minick. “Maybe you were thrown off by the pretty face next to him,” he added helpfully.
“I remember that old truck of theirs,” he continued. “It was kind of ratty, but then again, the whole operation was kind of ratty. They put their money in hustle, not polish. I think it was part of the original persona: bad boys from Illinois. Back then, a pair of greasy white pants and a T-shirt was about all a crew guy needed, and you would see one or two guys, including the driver, pitch in for between-rounds maintenance. Sure loved the burnouts and dry hops of the era. Minick was the king of smoke. It all must have worked. They pretty much were the guys to beat for a long time. Coil was a genius back then too.”
Probably not the image that Steve Morse references, but still pretty cool.
A lot of people were “Jungle” fans, even his fellow drivers. Steve Morse hung out with Russell Long (who also drove the Chi-Town Hustler for a few years) in the 1980s after his ride ended in Dennis Fowler’s Sundance Monza and reported that Coil and driver Frank Hawley used to park the rig at Long’s house in El Toro, Calif., while in SoCal. “Russell had a poster-sized pic of ‘Jungle’ from OCIR on his kitchen wall that had the header fire at the roof at idle,” he remembered. “Russell always spoke fondly of ‘Jungle.’ I also traveled to Fremont, I think it was '82, when Hawley won his first of two crowns with the Chi-Town guys, and ‘Vipe’ [Don Prudhomme] could barely qualify that weekend, but Coil tuned ‘er up and went low I think? We were pitted right next to ‘Snake,’ and he could not believe box truck vs. big rig stuff ran so well. ‘Vipe’ even asked Coil if he ever took the heads off, and Coil just twisted his toothpick and chuckled. I remember Hawley going a few rounds, and Coil was kidding with Hawley how he was going to install a remote-controlled cattle prod in the seat so Hawley would leave on time!”
Not everyone was thrilled with my storytelling. Add this to the Phil Burgess Smackdown File:
Reader Cliff T. scolded, “The following statements about the Chi-Town Hustler Funny Car were a bit off base from your usual accurate reporting, in my opinion. You said, ‘But I bet you didn’t know that the Hustler also had a couple of other drivers who took brief albeit memorable rides in the famous flopper: a couple of guys named “Jungle Jim” Liberman and Austin Coil.’
“Really? I know you don't know everything and neither do I, and I know you can't remember everything and neither can I, but this was common knowledge to me and any real ‘Jungle Jim’ Funny Car racing fan. ‘Jungle’ driving the Hustler was written about both in the old Drag News and in National DRAGSTER, and ‘Jungle’ himself would talk about it with his fans when asked. Coil was interviewed on ESPN in Atlanta and revealed how he had once ‘shoed’ the Hustler at a Rockford, Ill., four-wide race in days of old, and four-wide was nothing new to him.”
Which is why I called the column “I didn't know that.”
C.T. continued, “You said, 'Everyone knows the story of the great Chi-Town Hustler, how engineering ace John Farkonas, tuning wiz Austin Coil, and deft driver Pat Minick turned the Funny Car world on its ear with the first burnouts and ran their Dodge-bodied cars at match races from coast to coast.’
“The first time I saw the Chi-Town Hustler Funny Car on the West Coast was with a Plymouth Barracuda body, not Dodge, and I guarantee you, all of the top-name fuel Funny Cars of that time were there at that Beeline [Dragway, Ariz.] meet in late 1967 [and] were all doing burnouts before each of their runs. If you mean that the next FCM car, the new Chi-Town Dodge Charger Funny Car, was the first to do longer-style burn-throughs to lay down more rubber ... maybe they were. I have heard they were ... but in no way were they the first Funny Cars to do Funny Car burnouts with that old Barracuda of theirs.”
OK, so maybe I could have been more clear about what I meant about the burnouts; I definitely should have added the word “long” in there. The idea of spinning the tires to warm them predates even those early Funny Cars, and, yes, the first Chi-Town Hustler was a ’67 'Cuda. Heck, the Hustler once even was a Ford, too, but mostly it was a Dodge, including the Challenger shown here in 1973.
In an interview in National DRAGSTER a few years ago, Coil talked about those early years and how the Hustler’s legend began with that first 'Cuda. “We’d gone out and played with the car a few times, but we decided that we needed to go somewhere we’d be noticed,” he said. “We dragged it to a Funny Car race of some consequence [the Super Stock Nationals at U.S. 30 in York, Pa., in June of 1967] and ran an 8.17, which was low e.t. I remember Don Nicholson coming over and saying, ‘Who the hell are you guys?’ That made us feel pretty good, and that’s kind of where it all started.”
But, according to Coil, it was at a match race in Springfield, Ill., in July of 1969 that the Hustler Charger made the first of what would become its trademark LONG burnouts.
(Richard Wood photo)
“We thought that if you smoked the tires really hard in high gear and got them hot that it might help the traction,” said Coil. “That’s why we did it. We had no intention of wowing the crowd; it was just an attempt to try to run better. As it turned out, it did run pretty good. It was just an eighth-mile track, and I don’t recall any times, but the crowd went nuts, and it became part of our act. With the tires of that era, if you got them spinning pretty good in the water, the car hardly moved, and smoke just billowed off them. We did the same thing the next day in Rockford, Ill., and the reaction of the fans there confirmed that we had stumbled onto something pretty spectacular. Some of the guys thought that you must have to do something different to do that, but you didn’t. A lot of guys overrevved the motor, but it wasn’t necessary.”
Coil also had some kind words for all of his drivers. “Pat [Minick] did a wonderful job,” he said. “In the beginning, there were no driver aids of any kind, and with the old Torqueflite transmissions, if you were too heavy on the throttle, you could easily spin the tires and blow up the motor. Frequently, some of the racetracks we’d run on would have oily spots, and sometimes you could actually hear him lift off the throttle a little to make sure he could steer around the oil and carry on. All of our drivers did a good job, but I think [Long] was the most underrated. He did a super job, but at the time he was driving , we had a pretty crappy race car, and he never really had the chance to do anything of note. But it wasn’t his fault.”
And we’re back to Liberman to round out the column today. My Pure Nostalgia column in National DRAGSTER this week recaps the 1977 season, which, of course, was when “Jungle” was killed in an accident Sept. 9 in which his Corvette collided with a bus near his West Chester, Pa., home. He was just three days shy of his 32nd birthday.
For my generation of drag racing fans, it was akin to losing our Elvis Presley, the coolest cat on the block. Don’t get me wrong, “the Snake” was ultracool, but “Jungle” was our rock star, and I find it particularly interesting that Elvis, who died Aug. 16, and “Jungle” died just 24 days apart.
In reviewing Liberman’s passing, I came across a very touching obituary in National DRAGSTER’s Sept. 23 issue. For years, Wally Parks had kept a pretty stern hand on the tiller and frowned on overly sentimental prose in DRAGSTER, but this one must have got an exemption. I sense enough of a semi-black-sheep tone to suspect that perhaps even Parks himself may have written it. The tribute to Liberman (“racer, innovator, promoter, showman and rebel”) reads, in part: “Outlaw or superstar; flakey or fantastic, whatever one's personal opinion of ‘Jungle Jim,’ the sport will not be the same without him. He's gone before his time, perhaps even before his prime. We all will most certainly miss him. But as long as there are Funny Cars, we won't forget him. His is a name that is synonymous with the Funny Cars simply because he did more than any other man to popularize Funny Car drag racing. The success that those hybrids now enjoy is ‘Jungle's’ legacy. We are all indebted to him for it.”
Liberman’s obituary also included this: “Always considered something of a free spirit, it was Liberman who almost single-handedly stole the show in the film short Vrooom! with his enthusiastic endorsement: ‘Drag Racing is Far Out!’ ”
The words alone don’t do justice to that amazing piece of "Jungle"-ism. It was more like “Drag racing is farrrrrrrrrrr out!” It was a sound bite that got used extensively, including in radio ads.
So I got to thinking: Next month, “Jungle” would have turned 65. With John Force still planning to compete up through his 65th birthday, would Liberman still be racing today? “Berserko Bob” Doerrer knew, traveled, ate, and raced with “Jungle” for the last seven years of his life, so he seemed to be the logical one to ask.
“I’ve said for years if 'Jungle' hadn’t been killed, he’d be what John Force is now,” he opined. “His best friend was Austin Coil, and when ‘Jungle’ got the 7-Eleven sponsorship in August of 1977, they were talking about putting together a two-car team with JJ driving one car and getting another driver in the second car. Candidates were Jake Crimmins, Roy Harris, and their No. 1 choice, Pat Foster.”
Really makes you wonder what might have been, doesn’t it?
According to Doerrer, Old Bridge Township Raceway Park owner Vinnie Napp brokered the 7-Eleven deal for Liberman, leveraging the convenience store’s sponsorship of the Englishtown track by convincing it to sponsor Liberman for the track’s annual 32-car U.S. All-Pro Funny Car Championships event. Because it was staged on the weekend before Labor Day, all the nation’s top nitro cars were on the way to Indy and used the race as a test session.
“ ‘Jungle’ showed up with the orange car in 7-Eleven livery and with all the 7-Eleven executives in attendance put on a show I’ll never forget,” Doerrer recalled. “Killer burnouts, backing up at 70 mph, and even though he didn’t win the race, the crowd around his pit was bigger than any other Funny Car on the property. 7-Eleven signed him right then and there. ‘Jungle’ also had Castrol as a sponsor, and when he got killed, you know where they went.
“As far as his [still] driving, I think he would have done it for as long as he was having fun doing it. Without a doubt, he liked the mechanical aspect of drag racing better, but the fans dug him, and even though he sent other drivers in his cars to tracks with ['Jungle'] Pam, there wasn’t anybody who had his skills and charisma. Ask anybody who ever saw him race: He was fearless, a showman, and knew how to work the crowd.”
Doerrer also sent me the photo at right, which includes the restored “Jungle Jim” Vega in which Liberman won his only national event, the 1975 Summernationals.
“At the end of the 1975 season, ‘Jungle’ sold his car to a guy from Sweden. ‘Jungle’ sold it complete, ready to run, and it was stuffed in a container at Port Newark (N.J.) and went to Sweden. The new owner was Janne Johansson, who raced it a few times, then parked the car until a few years ago when he did a full restoration on the car, and here it is parked alongside the Pisano & Matsubara car he recently completed. Both of them are cackle cars only, and Janne’s plans are to bring them Stateside someday.”
Now that would be farrrrrrrrrrr out!
Like a busboy in an all-you-can-eat restaurant, seems like I can’t clear the plates fast enough to satisfy your rabid hunger, so I’m going to try to use today to wipe the table clean of some news and notes I’ve had scattered across my desk. (I wish I could add to the culinary theme more by saying I have notes scribbled on cocktail napkins, but that’s not the case. Anymore.)
Last Tuesday’s tale about Louie Force chowing down at the Big Texan elicited not one but two verifications of the stomach-stretching story as well the beginnings of a good list of those who also were able to wolf down the 72-ounce steak with all of the fixin’s.
“The Louie story is real,” professed Carl Gunter. “Gene [Beaver] and the Condits -- Steve and Dave -- came to Dallas and stayed at Mike Burkhart's shop and at Mike's home. We all went to dinner together, and Gene retold the entire story while Louie devoured an all-you-could-eat dinner at a place called The Rib in Dallas. The story kept everyone rolling for hours.”
Mike Lewis, vice president at Don Schumacher Racing and himself a former Top Fuel team owner, recalled watching Top Fuel team owner Slim Carter “mow down” the 72-ounce special in about 40 minutes at the 1972 World Finals, “and then savor it again at a leisurely 55-minute pace the next night.” Carter had plenty to celebrate that year as he and driver Jim Walther won the Top Fuel championship by winning the Finals.
“Waterbed Fred” Miller, of Blue Max crew and Action Performance fame, reported that his boss, Raymond Beadle, completed the gastronomic challenge “with time to spare” and that Burkhart also was up to the task. He also reported that Mike Hamby – longtime partner of Dale Pulde and the War Eagle team – “ate one every night we were there” and that Canadian Funny Car racer Mike Lycar polished off two of the monstrous meat meals in one sitting.
Former National DRAGSTER Editor Bill Holland reported that Sportsman standout Dave Boertman – “who is not a big guy” – also went big and confirmed Miller’s Lycar claim but recalled it as two days in a row (as opposed to twice in one sitting).
Holland also remembered an occasion when a number of NHRA employees were cheering on one of their own, Division 3 Tech Director Marty Barratt. “Now, Marty was a very big guy, easily tipping the scales at over 300 pounds, and we figured him to be a sure winner. Well, he started off strong enough and polished off the preliminaries in short order, then dug into the steak. But his aggressive eating style began to wane, and as we approached the 45-minute mark, the chewing became slower, and slower, and slower. I think Marty's jaw simply gave out on him. No free steak!”
Bob Roush had a much different Big Texan memory. ”I was working with a Top Fuel team out of Dallas -- Pepples & Williams, with Chip Woodall driving. They had broken a rear end on Saturday and were staying at a hotel near where I lived and were thrashing to repair the car. I asked if they needed help and got to help out. Late off the line in the second round ended the day. The owner(s) invited me to go out to dinner with them, and it was at the Big Texan. A lot of the crews and drivers were there. In the Big Texan restroom were two urinals. The normal-height one had a sign over it that read ‘Others.’ The kids’ one, which was much lower, was labeled ‘Texans.’ “
I met reader David Moore once in 2008, in the McDonald’s (yep, sometimes we eat low on the hog) in Sandusky, Ohio, during a trip to the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Nationals in Norwalk, which he was attending with his daughter Lacey, and he shared his most memorable dragstrip foodstuff story, which involves Norwalk’s I-can’t-believe-they-did-that concoction called the Roast Beef Sundae. I have witnessed this meaty monstrosity myself but have never partaken, but at least I can vouch for his story.
“Like many 12-year-old girls, believe it or not, Lacey is a picky eater,” he recalled. “I saw the Roast Beef Sundae, which I had never heard of but had to have. It looks just like an ice cream sundae, but it is roast beef, gravy, [and mashed] potatoes with a cherry tomato on top. I said to Lacey, ‘Let’s get one of those.’ Her answer was, ‘No way, Daddy; that sounds nasty.’ She had this idea that it was ice cream with roast beef in it. But I got one with two spoons, and she helped me eat this wonderful dish. This was on Thursday, and we had one every day of the event at her request. I’m sure glad we discovered these on the first day; if not, I might have had to eat four days’ worth in one day. They’re that good. I’m having a craving for one of those great Roast Beef Sundaes right now.”
You can read more about the RBS on the noreallyyoucaneatit blog here. If you dare.
I got a few emails asking me what’s new with the movie about Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen. A few weeks ago, Robin Broidy, producer of the biopic, hosted a meeting/get-together at her Los Angeles home to bring together some of the principals of the project, including (of course) “the Snake” and “the Mongoose,” representatives from NHRA (President Tom Compton, Senior Vice President-Sales & Marketing Gary Darcy, and Director of Broadcasting & Video Communications Jim Trace), the production team, and others involved in the project for a day of brainstorming and introductions. Unfortunately for me, it was a Wednesday, a pretty busy “ship” day at National DRAGSTER, so I wasn’t able to attend, but Robin was kind enough to send me a CD full of photos from the event. Plenty else was going on there, including introductions of people whose names I can’t mention and photos I can’t show – that’s for a later plot development – so for now, I’ll stick with this photo of Prudhomme, McEwen, and Compton posed with Broidy’s vintage Corvette.
Speaking of McEwen, we had a nice chat the other day – he was calling to update me on the ever-improving condition of Art Chrisman – so we talked about a few things, including his impressions of the recently Prudhomme-restored ramp truck (“It’s unbelievable. The yellow one is beautiful, but the red one he just went overboard on. It’s gorgeous.”) and the news that later this year Mattel will be releasing 1/64th-scale Hot Wheels sets of both ramp truck/Funny Car combinations (yes, the cars will be detachable from the trucks). I double-checked with Skip Allum at Prudhomme’s to see if there was an in-store date, but his best answer was, “All I've been told is that they will be available ‘in time for Christmas.’ ” I can’t wait. It’s never too early to start that Christmas wish list, guys.
And still speaking of McEwen, reader Chuck McAveney was nice enough to scan a copy of the September 1975 Hot Rod magazine article about McEwen “racing” an F-14 (go here to read my account); although they were not allowed to “race” side by side, the above publicity-type photo is the “money shot” as far as I’m concerned. Thanks, Chuck.
Harvey Crane Jr. operating a new Storm Vulcan Cam grinder in August 1953.
I also got a note from Jim Hill, one of the Insider’s many great sources, who tipped me off that tomorrow is a very special yet sad day in hot rodding history. Tomorrow, Aug. 17, Harvey J. Crane Jr. will celebrate his 80th birthday. According to Hill, not only will this date mark the 80th year of the man who created Crane Cams, it will also be the last day of his day-to-day career as a camshaft lobe profile designer and authority. After nearly 70 years of a life filled with "lift and duration," he's retiring from his daily routine of dealing with those who call to speak with "The Cam Man.”
“At 80, Harvey remains both physically as well as mentally active, and his health is good, thanks to several long walks daily with his Australian herding dog Stormy,” he wrote. “He maintains his mental health by continuing to work at what he knows best, the unique science of cam lobe profile design. He also teaches an occasional ‘Cam School’ class for clients. (Harvey's list of Cam School graduates reads like the Who's Who of the racing engine world!)
“He says he will never, ever fully retire to doing nothing and plans to continue to do so ‘... until they close the lid on me!’ His plans call for continued research and development in the cam lobe profile field but on a more selective basis.”
Crane Cams was very much a part of NHRA in its early years. The company was launched into the drag racing spotlight in 1961 when unknown Atlanta driver Pete Robinson won Top Eliminator at the NHRA Nationals. A few months later, Jim Nelson drove the Dragmaster Dart to the Top Eliminator win at the 1962 NHRA Winternationals. Both winning cars featured Crane’s roller tappet camshafts. After that, Crane’s career and NHRA were forever joined.
According to Hill, in 1966, Crane established an NHRA precedent by paying contingency award money to class winners at the Nationals. He recognized the vital importance of weekend sportsman racers and wanted to reward them for choosing his product. NHRA quickly adopted a formal class-winner contingency-awards program for national events in which several other cam companies participated.
Crane at an early-1960s trade show in Miami Beach, Fla.
“Harvey and NHRA enjoyed several decades of highly successful growth and involvement,” he wrote. “That ended in late 1989, when a hostile board of directors dismissed Harvey from the company he founded. Although Harvey was no longer personally involved, Crane Cams did remain a major NHRA multiproduct sponsor until the company failed. (An entirely different company has since reopened, using the brand name Crane Cams but with no affiliation with Crane.)"
Throughout the years, Crane was active in the early, formative years of SEMA, including making the SEMA Show a major industry event, and he supported events at the Bonneville Salt Flats. His powerful camshafts have won at the Indy 500, Daytona 500, NHRA Nationals, World of Outlaws, and Pike's Peak and on nearly every major racing venue.
“His amazing personal career as a self-taught, global authority in the unique discipline of cam lobe profile design and theory knows no equal,” Hill testified. “He has been honored by NHRA, SEMA, SAE, and was named to the East Coast Drag Racing Hall of Fame. I have known Harvey Crane since I was a pre-teenager, sneaking under the fence and into the drag races at Amelia Earhart Field in Hialeah, Fla., in 1958. I am proud that my friendship with him remains strong, now more than 50 years later. To this, I say: 'Happy 80th birthday, Harvey Crane!' "
You can read more about Crane, including his story, and facts and figures on camshaft design and so much more at http://www.harveycrane.com/.
I also heard a while ago from longtime pal and Texas tuning wildcatter Bobby Rex, who has just completed work on a re-creation of Johnny Valdez’s Mexican Revolution Camaro, which he tuned in the 1970s. Don Sosenka (of Mr. Magoo fame) will drive the car; Valdez’s involvement is pretty much limited to helping the crew, doing Cacklefests, and helping with displays. Perhaps knowing the tough audience here, Rex cautioned, “None of it is original; the chassis is a Johnny West late-model chassis, motor is 500-inch Brad Anderson. When I was match racing on the East Coast last year before moving back to Texas, I had a lot of people tell me they remembered the car when we raced at places like York, Pa.; Hartford, Conn.; and Union Grove, Wis.” You can see more at the car’s website, www.mexicanrevolution.biz.
And finally, speaking of things of Hispanic descent, check out the sequence above. That’s a young Cruz Pedregon trying out the driving duds of his famous father, “Flaming Frank” Pedregon, who’s pictured at left. I received the images from Doug Glad at Car Craft magazine, who asked my help in verifying that they were, in fact, of Cruz. According to Glad, the photos, from the Car Craft archives, were shot by Pat Brollier in November 1965 at the Mickey Thompson Drag Races at Fontana Drag City. Incredibly, Pedregon had never seen these photos and, quite naturally, was elated to see them. After checking with his most trusted source (his mom), he was able to say with complete certainty that it was him. “You just made my day; you have no idea,” he texted me.
It’s what we do …
OK, well that clears the table for now. Friday’s “Jungle Jim”/Chi-Town piece drew a lot of response, so I’ll have a few follow-ups on that on Friday. See ya then.