Features

'Nitro Nellie' GoinsFriday, March 20, 2015
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Nellie Goins wasn’t the first female to ever strap herself into a supercharged, nitro-burning Funny Car – pioneers like Paula Murphy, Della Woods, and Shirley Muldowney all preceded her – nor the first African-American racer to try their hand at the volatile machines – Malcom Durham and his protégés, Lee Jones and Western Bunns, all were there before her – but hers is a story that transcends firsts, let alone gender and race.

The fact that she was both female and African American in a time when the sport, and even the world, was not always kind to either is not even the takeaway from the story of her brief time in the sport. I’d long been aware of “Nitro Nellie,” but it wasn’t until last weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals that I got a chance to spend some time with her. She was there, along with her beautifully restored Mustang Funny Car, as part of the event’s Hot Rod Junction and took part in autograph sessions and chatted with fans, some of who knew of her and some just learning. She got to sit next to legendary quarter-mile Don Garlits and met Antron Brown. It was quite a weekend.

Now 75, Nellie is just beginning to get the accolades of her long-ended career, including being honored late last year by the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame, and I was just as eager to see that she got due respect for her efforts in the sport. I had no idea of the story of family love and devotion that would unfold in our subsequent phone calls.

Nellie was just a teenager in high school in Indiana when she met the man who would change her life, Otis, a talented offensive guard on their school’s football team. He loved sports and cars, and they married not long after. She was just 16, and he recently graduated and headed into the service.

The two built a life together in Gary, Ind., and started a family that by the late 1960s had grown to four children. He toiled at U.S. Steel and she at the Joliet Army munitions plant in Illinois, where she worked her way up to building supervisor at the plant that produced 105 mm howitzer shells and other armament during the Vietnam War.

Through it all, Otis never forgot his passion for cars, and with fabled U.S. 30 Dragway practically in their backyard, it was only natural that the dragstrip would be a place for him to express that desire. And when Otis dreamed, he always dreamed big, and he wanted a Funny Car.

So the duo scrimped and saved, often working double shifts at their respective jobs. For Nellie, that meant 60-mile long drives to and from work – and one time getting stranded on the highway in a snowstorm for a day and a half, taking refuge with 95 others inside a tiny gas station – and doing without a lot of life’s luxuries one might want.

“We had a rough time getting started with money in general because I was only 16, but he always said we had to put money aside, no matter how little, until it finally got to the point there was enough to start something,” she recalled. “As the song says, ‘It was a long time comin.' "

The end result of all of that hard work was an injected-on-alcohol ’68 Barracuda that Otis dubbed the Conqueror. Otis was going to drive the car himself, but he suffered from diabetes and was not able to pass the physical. So Nellie did the only thing she could think of to salve his broken heart and keep the dream alive. She offered to drive it.

“Drag racing was not my first passion, but I did it for my husband and my family,” she admits. “I always believed that if a woman kept her husband happy, everything would be beautiful. This was the family dream.”

She also admits that she was unprepared for what she had signed up for.

“I had no respect at all for the car the first time I got in it,” she recalls. “We took the car to an abandoned airstrip near where we lived, and since neither of us had ever driven one of these cars, we didn’t know a whole lot about what to do. I was so nonchalant and relaxed that when I stood on the gas, a half-second later my head snapped back and I realized this wasn’t your grandma’s car. I found that respect pretty quickly.”

(Above) Otis and Nellie's first Funny Car was this Dodge Charger. A Challenger replaced it, but the body was damaged by a tire incident (below).

After a year of getting their feet wet on the various Midwest match race alcohol circuits, Otis decided to convert the car to injected nitro. According to Nellie, he was never shy about asking for help, even going as far as to approach the likes of Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme for advice, and he found an expert helping hand in former U.S. Nationals championship tuner Ken Hirata, who lived in Lowell, Ind., just 30 miles from Gary.

“Kenny became my husband’s mentor,” she remembers. “Whenever we had a problem we couldn’t figure out, we’d call on good ol’ Kenny, and he’d come down to help us. One of my funniest stories about Kenny was the time he drove down to help us get the car ready for a race one Sunday. Where we lived, there was a church on the other side of the alley from our garage, and catty-corner from us was another church, and across the street was another church. Roland Leong was staying with Kenny that weekend, so he came down, too. When we finally fired it up, it was right during the middle of church service. You have no idea how many cops and preachers showed up.”

The Goins' four children were at their feet at every event, the youngest around five, the oldest 12, and served as pit crew along with help from one of Otis’ friends and one of Nellie’s co-workers at the munitions plant. “They didn’t know much, but they were good at taking orders, and Mr. Goins was good at giving orders,” she said with a laugh.

“The kids were our pit crew; they were well-behaved because they were strictly raised, and they worked hard. It gets cold in Gary, Ind., in the winter, and the kids would be out there with us in the garage laying on the cold pavement, working on the car to get it ready for the next spring.”

Drag racing in the 1960s was not an especially welcoming environment to women, and race relations then are not quite what they are today, but Nellie says that they never experienced any troubles on either front.

“No one ever mistreated us because of our race,” she said. “In fact, we were pretty well ignored. We didn’t have the big money or big sponsor, and we certainly didn’t have time to socialize. We had a few fans, but because it was all business, nose to the grindstone to get the car ready, we didn’t have time to chat with them. We didn’t want them to think we were snobbish; we just didn’t have time to talk to them. We were just trying to hold it together.”

Nellie and Otis eventually traded the '68 Barracuda body in for a new '70 Challenger body, but their beautiful new treasure was heavily damaged on one of their first runs when the tire reached out and grabbed the right side of the body, tearing it off below the window.

“We were at U.S. 30, and we didn’t figure on the tire growth, and when I took off, I looked over and there was nothing but daylight on that side,” she said. “It was clear we were strictly amateurs.”

 
(Above) Otis and Nellie with their new Mustang, which made its debut, sans lettering, in August 1971 (right).

It was during this time that the Goins team received a shot of recognition in Ebony magazine. At Otis’ urging, Nellie had written to the magazine, providing them with a detailed story of their efforts. They rejected her article but decided instead to send a reporter and photographer to accompany them at a match race at Tri-State Raceway in Ohio. The resulting story spanned five pages and ran in the November 1971 issue, and she later also was featured in Ebony Jr., but the hopes of the articles attracting a sponsorship soon faded. “We never were able to get a sponsor of any kind,” she laments. “I think the most we ever got was spark plugs.”

Despite their steep learning curve, the goal was the AA/FC ranks of supercharged nitro, so in early 1970, they commissioned chassis builder Lee Austin to build them a new car, which they cloaked with a Fiberglass Ltd. ’71 Mach 1 Mustang body. The car debuted Aug. 29, 1971, at U.S. 30 in injected nitro trim and later was converted to full-blown nitroburner. The car was capable of running in the low sevens at speeds approaching 215 mph.

The dream ride came to an end one weekend a few years later at Bristol Dragway. The right front tire got off the track, damaging both the chassis and the body. Although Otis ordered a new Monza shell for the car, his health had begun to decline as the result of his diabetes, and the team could no longer afford to race, so the car was parked and sat in their garage for almost three decades.

“Even though he was sick and bedridden, he would still be going through his National Dragster and other car magazines ordering parts,” she remembers. “He always dreamed of getting the car back out.”

Otis passed away in July 2001, and a few years later, Nellie finally parted with the car. The first owner, Sam Ballen, kept it for a few years, then sold it to Rick Lucas, who wanted to do – with Nellie’s blessing and cooperation – a 100 percent accurate restoration of the car, which was showcased last weekend in the Hot Rod Junction at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville.

“Rick was so dedicated to getting it right,” she said, almost in awe. “He calls me before he does anything and checks to see if the way he has it is the same as the original. Having the car at the Gatornationals was the greatest thing that could ever happen. Otis has been gone 14 years, but I know that he saw it.” You can see photos of the restoration at http://www.conquerorracing.com/current.html.

The Gatornationals was a treat for Nellie in so many other ways. She was able to reconnect with Hirata’s wife, Chiyo, for the first time since the 1970s and with his son, David, who was there to tune on Mia Tedesco’s Top Alcohol Dragster. And she got to meet Brown, who made history in 2012 as NHRA’s first African-American Pro champ and, like the rest of us, fell in love with him.


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Nellie was thrilled to meet Antron Brown in the pits in Gainesville.
 

“He’s so sweet; he is the nicest guy,” she raved. “He’s already married so I can’t get him to marry my daughter, but I would consider adopting him and his whole family. He welcomed me like he’d known me his whole life and introduced me to the crowd [of fans] around his trailer. He took me inside his trailer and opened a cabinet and there were 16 pair of brand-new heads; what we would have given to have two extra pair of brand-new heads back then."

She also got to sit next to Garlits during the autograph session and was thrilled to know that he knew who she was. “He is drag racing; anyone who knows anything about drag racing knows Don Garlits,” she said. “He was a whole different person than I knew of when we were racing. He’s a very interesting man, and he just kept talking to me, and he had no idea how much I was enjoying that and getting to know him.”

The Gatornationals followed her East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame honors – her kids, the youngest of whom is now 47, and her sister all flew in from various parts of the country to attend that ceremony – and she still can’t believe she’s remembered all these years later.

“I cannot believe this; it’s all such a whirlwind,” she said. “It blows me away. I was so shocked I almost turned down [the Hall of Fame] because I never broke any records or anything and didn’t feel worthy of all of this praise, but my daughter told me, ‘It’s not about all of that; you opened the door,’ and I realized that she was right, because we were out there fighting and trying. The most common thing I heard from fans in Gainesville was ‘Thank you for what you did for the sport,’ which makes me feel good. There is such a thing as getting your roses before you die.”

In her Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Nellie spoke only briefly, but poignantly. Her key remark being one that well suits her story: “Remember it is not just your ability to do something but your availability to get out there and try. Live your dreams."
 

Fan Fotos: 1965 March MeetFriday, March 13, 2015
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Last weekend, racers descended on Bakersfield for the 58th running of the March Meet, which now is part of NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series but for decades was known as one of the great fuel-racing events on the calendar.

In 1959, the Smokers Car Club of Bakersfield created what it called an East vs. West challenge and paid Don Garlits to make his first trek west to prove that the incredible numbers he had been laying down back East were legitimate and that he was the real deal. Garlits had a less than memorable outing, and a Bakersfield win eluded him until 1965, when he had a monster weekend.

Fifty years later, into my email Inbox comes a wonderful collection of rare color photos from that event, sent by column reader Charles Milikin Jr., of Oakdale, Conn., who as a 21-year-old made the Garlits-like cross-country trek to the Valhalla of nitro racing.

“I was a drag racing fan and amateur photographer from Connecticut and loved reading about all the great cars on the West Coast In the pages of Drag News and National Dragster,” he explained. “My cousin and I planned to go to Bakersfield and also visit one of his friends that lived in El Cajon when his family moved there (his dad was in the Navy at that time). So we drove cross-country in my '63 Chevy Impala and had a wonderful experience. We took turns driving and went nonstop, traveling the old Route 66. It was fueler heaven for a reason, and I have great memories from a wonderful period of drag racing. I somehow managed not to throw out some of the negatives from way back then. These were all from behind the fence. I was fortunate to have a telephoto lens with me."

Don Garlits has often called it his "greatest win," which is really saying something considering the many huge victories he scored in his career. Here “Big Daddy” shared the winning moment with his daughters, Gay Lynn (wearing his face mask) and Donna.

Garlits, runner-up the previous year to Connie Kalitta, brought three cars out West: his own Swamp Rat VI-B, with which he had won the Nationals the year before; Swamp Rat 8, driven by Connie Swingle, which featured a rear wild torsion bar and was fitted with the new 426 Hemi; and the Garlits Chassis Special (a near clone of SR VI), driven by “Starvin’ Marvin” Schwartz.

Garlits won all six rounds of Saturday’s 64-car show; Swingle and Schwartz were beaten early. The winner of the Saturday show was scheduled to face the winner of Sunday’s 32-car field. Swingle didn’t make the quick 32 cut, but Schwartz did despite having problems with the engine. Garlits was on hand to watch, but Schwartz asked Garlits to drive his car in the first round so he could hear it run “for tuning purposes.” Garlits won his first-round race, so Schwartz let him drive again, and he won again. Three rounds later, Garlits had also vanquished the 32-car field.

Seeing as how he couldn’t race himself in the Saturday vs, Sunday overall winner final, Schwartz hopped back into the car. They flipped for lane choice; Garlits won and picked the right lane because the left had recently been oiled. Schwartz had other ideas, though, and after the push-start zoomed right into the right lane ahead of Garlits, who surrendered the lane to his good friend, then beat him anyway with an 8.10 at 205 mph yet was none-too-pleased with his good friend. The victory competed Garlits’ quest to win all of the big three events of that era (the Nationals, Winternationals, and March Meet).

I’m not sure if this is Garlits or Marvin Schwartz in the Garlits Chassis Special “shop car.” What I do know is that this car was later shortened and became the chassis for Swamp Rat IX, the Roadster Dart, one of the few Swamp Rats that wasn’t a Top Fuel dragster.

 Swingle went on to take runner-up honors behind James Warren in Sunday’s 16-car consolation event (some say that Swingle won the controversial, smoke-filled final), making for an impressive weekend for the Garlits team.

The rest of Milikin’s photos help set the mood for the time. I don’t have a lot of information on most of them beyond what Milikin provided, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy them just the same.

Fresh off of winning the Winternationals, here’s Don Prudhomme in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian. Not long after the March Meet, they headed back East on tour and became household names before the year was out after also winning the Nationals.
Most fans know Bill Leavitt for his long line of Quickie Two Funny Cars, but before he raced floppers, he was into Top Fuel with this Tommy Ivo-built dragster.
Oregon’s Cordy Jensen hiked the front end in the Bev's Steak House Top Fueler, which was sponsored by the family business. Jensen became a very successful restaurateur with a stake in more than 90 restaurants.
Chuck Hepler’s Fugitive, which made the long tow out West from Champaign, Ill.
The original Winkle-Trapp-Fuller Magi-car. I’m not sure who was driving it at this event, but my money is on Jeep Hampshire.
The A&B Speed Shop injected Chevy of Bernie Regals and Ade Kynff in the near-deserted Famoso pits. The duo made the trip to California from Somerville, Mass., in early 1965 and raced at Lions and other tracks.
Unknown Jr. Fueler warming up in the pits
Dave Beebe lit the hides in the Beebe Bros./JA Speed Center Chevy-powered ‘32 Bantam fuel altered.
West Coast Gasser legend Jack “the Bear” Coonrod was partners on this bright yellow Willys – dubbed the Kamakazi Koup – with Wayne Harry.

 
Thanks again to Charles for sharing these great pics. I see a lot of great old photos, but a lot of them are black and white, so to have color photos, and from such a memorable event, is a real treat. I hope you enjoyed them.

Early rear-engine ironFriday, March 06, 2015
Posted by: Phil Burgess
(Above) "Ollie" Morris' back-motor Smokin' White Owl debuted in 1954 and tore up Southern California strips. (Below) Morris, right, and sponsor Harvey Malcomson, of Harvey’s Auto Glass, worked on the car's flathead powerplant (inset).
The car got its nickname from its cylindrical shape and white paint, which reminded some of White Owl cigars, though he was never sponsored by the company.

Although the topic the last few weeks has been the 1970-72 transition from front-engine slingshot to rear-engine dragster in Top Fuel, I got quite a few inquiries and suggestions about other rear-engine cars that predated those discussed in the last two columns.

You don’t have to look through too many Hot Rod magazines from the 1954-55 era to see plenty of dragsters with the engine behind the driver. I even spied future Indy car hero A.J. Foyt at the wheel of Ray Harrelson’s rear-engine belly tanker dragster, which set top speed (121.73 mph) at the Safety Safari’s stop in El Paso, Texas, in the summer of 1955, and just from the photos I’ve perused, at least a half-dozen were at the first Nationals in Great Bend, Kan., in 1955, including late-round finisher Harrelson’s Motor Reco Special, the Green Monster #5 of Walt and Art Arfons, and one of the most famous early rear-engine cars, the Smokin’ White Owl of George “Ollie” Morris, a car that’s truly worthy of our attention here.

Morris, a Navy veteran, spent his first years after World War II track racing and spent way too much time fixing bent chassis and tweaked body parts from numerous collisions, so when the famed Southern California dragstrip opened in Santa Ana in 1950, Morris took to the straight-line course, first with partner Harold Dawson with a hot-running B/Roadster that went 128 mph. To save weight, they removed the firewall, which led to the occasional oil bath. It didn’t take long for him to get that mess behind him – literally.

In 1953, Morris and Bruce Terry built the Smokin’ White Owl in his backyard, using '29 Ford framerails from his roadster, then added a hand-formed aluminum body that was ingeniously designed using a bathtub as an ad hoc wind tunnel. He’d make up scale models of his body design and push them through the water using a stick and observe the turbulence.

The car’s cylindrical body and white paint scheme reminded people of the White Owl brand of cigars and led to the car’s nickname, but he was never sponsored by the company. Harvey Malcomson, of Harvey’s Auto Glass, was his primary backer.

The car notwithstanding, Morris himself already had a few nicknames, including “the Mad Chemist of Baker Street” (where he lived in Santa Ana), due to his experimentations with fuel. His favorite concoction was 97 percent nitro with dashes of methane, ethyl ether, hydrazine, and, finally, benzene, which he used to mask the scent of the other four and earned him his other nickname, “Stinky,” which he celebrated by painting a skunk on his racing helmet.

Initial motivation for the 1,550-pound machine was a 275-cid flathead engine backed by a ’41 Ford side-shift manual transmission, but by 1955, he switched to the new Chevrolet overhead-valve V-8. Smith was so successful at Santa Ana that he was able to turn his winnings into better parts, trading in dozens of trophies (at $5 a pop) to track manager C.J. Hart to buy a quick-change rear end and a better magneto. The car consistently ran more than 140 mph and won a ton of races against the likes of Calvin Rice, the Bean Bandits, and Jack Chrisman, the latter two of whom ultimately also built rear-engine cars.

Morris’ talents caught the eye of Fred Offenhauser Sr., and Morris ultimately became the head engineer for Offenhauser Equipment Corp. During his 30 years with the company, he designed some of its most successful products, including the Dual-Port 360, Dial-A-Flow, Port-O-Sonic, TurboThrust, and EquaFlow 360, and he worked with Carroll Shelby on the intake manifolds used in the 1960s Shelby Mustangs. He died in June 2008, at the age of 81, and left behind an incredible legacy.

A re-creation of Don Garlits' first rear-engine car, built in 1957.

Lest you think that “Big Daddy” arrived late to the rear-engine party in 1971, he and brother Ed, inspired by the success of Morris’ machine, set out to build their own similar car in 1957. Using Ford-T framerails and a 371-cid Oldsmobile engine, they built a high-gear-only machine that had a wheelbase of 100 inches. Ed sat in a surplus aircraft seat just inches ahead of the engine.

They never could get the car to go straight. In its maiden outing at the old airfield in Dunnellon, Fla., the car made hard right turns on back-to-back passes, carrying Ed off the track. They took it home, and at the suggestion of round-track friends, they quickened the steering and returned a few weeks later to Dunnellon, where the car did the exact same thing. The last time, Ed just barely missed hitting two parked cars and threw up his hands in disgust and surrender. “Big Daddy” also wanted no part of driving the evil little car, so they hauled it home and disassembled it, and eventually all of the pieces were lost. The car was re-created in the early 2000s and sits in Garlits’ museum.

The Coleman Bros. rear-engine car

Dennis Friend, proprietor of the Two-To-Go website, passed along a link to a recent eBay auction (since closed) for the Coleman Bros.' rear-engine dragster. According to the information accompanying the auction, the car was built by the Coleman Bros. Speed Shop out of Baltimore around 1960 using a Scotty Fenn/Chassis Research FL44 model and “shattered track records throughout the East Coast on its first three outings. On Sept. 23, 1961, driver Earl Howard broke 180 mph at an 8.91 e.t. at York U.S. 30 Dragway. Afterward Drag News proclaimed it to be the world’s fastest Chevy.

“In 1964, owner Duane Reynolds moved out west to Seattle, and it was raced at Arlington, Puyallup, and many other West Coast dragstrips. Sometime around 1965, the frame had been extended from the front spring perch some 48 inches. In this configuration, several drag papers stated times in the 8.70s and runs over 190 as late as 1967, which is around when it last ran.”

(Above) The Jones-Malliard-Chrisman rear-engine sidewinder was a terror in 1959. (Below) Jack Chrisman, far lane, took A/Dragster class honors with the car at the 1959 Nationals, defeating Don Hampton in Kenny Lindley’s Miss Fire III in the final.
The Mag-Winder never ran as good as it looked.

One of the wildest early rear-engine dragsters was the Chuck Jones and Joe Malliard-Chrisman sidewinder, which did some real damage in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The car was actually a hand-me-down from Paul Nicolini, who had built the car in 1957 with his father-in-law, Harry Duncan, a wealthy Southern California contractor. After enough bent axles, broken chain drives, and aborted runs, in 1959, he sold the car to Jones, who was well-known in drag racing circles as a fuel coupe racer at Santa Ana and managing editor for Drag News.

Jones brought Malliard, who owned a machine shop in Long Beach, into the picture along with third partner Jack Reed. Jack Chrisman, a well-respected wheelman whose best days still lay ahead, was tapped to drive the car, having earlier wheeled some rear-engine cars.

With a supercharged Chrysler for power, the car won almost from its inception and even set the NHRA national record at 9.11 in May 1959. A second version was built, and Chrisman took A/Dragster class honors and nearly won the 1959 Nationals in Detroit.

Kent Fuller was hired to build a third version, lighter and longer. They commissioned Fuller to build the car using magnesium tubing instead of chrome moly and covered with a full streamlined body (made of both magnesium and aluminum by Wayne Ewing), leading to the car's name, the Mag-Winder. The car weighed just more than 1,400 pounds race-ready. It debuted in late 1960 and ran fast but never was as successful as its predecessors. The car was campaigned infrequently; Chrisman, meanwhile, had moved on to Howard Johansen's camp and the Howard Cam Twin Bears gas dragster, with which he won the inaugural Winternationals in 1961.

Paul Shapiro lit the M&Hs in the Cohen-Shapiro-Sonnenblick-O’Brien Israeli Rocket at Miami’s Masters Field, a Marines airfield used for mid-1960s drags. This was an early shot, with the blown Olds for power. Steering was rack-and-pinion with aluminum front wheels from a Zundap motor scooter. (Bill Bussart photo)
Shapiro left on Bob Hamilton’s Southern Pride AA/D at NHRA's Division 2 WCS event at Masters Field (note future NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch in middle). Hamilton’s former Garlits Swamp Rat V took the Top Eliminator win. The Rocket had bests of 8.46 at 185.50 in 1965 and won many Top Eliminator titles in Florida during the mid-1960s. (Bill Bussart photo)

Jim Hill, one of the Insider’s great sources of Southeast drag racing knowledge, passed along information about another great early rear-engine car, this one a Top Gasser from the mid-1960s known as the Israeli Rocket (long before Funny Car driver Leroy Goldstein had the nickname). According to Hill, the car recorded legitimate numbers (on certified Chrondek timers) of 8.46 at 185.50 mph, which were pretty good for 1964-65.

The diverse team consisted of driver Paul Shapiro, engine builder and tuner Howard Cohen, and partners Mike Sonnenblick and Tom O'Brien. According to Hill, the car's cowl carried a green shamrock and a Star of David, and this diverse group humorously called itself "Three Jews and an Irishman." The group had previously raced together, running a blown Olds-powered dragster and later the same Olds engine in an A/Roadster.

“The car was very soundly engineered and had many unique features not found on dragsters of the day,” Hill noted. “It was entirely homebuilt and boasted front rack-and-pinion steering (with the steer ratio slowed way down, for control), lightweight aluminum disc front wheels from a Zundap motor scooter, and loads of aircraft technology, components, and fasteners. As for handling, the car always went like it was on rails and never exhibited any of the spooky stuff that cursed early back-engine attempts.”

According to Hill, Shapiro, a certified aircraft weldor, assembled the chassis from 4130 chromoly and gas-welded the components. Cohen had degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering from the University of Miami and built and tuned the big-inch Dodge. Shapiro and Sonnenblick both worked in the aviation maintenance industry at MIA. O'Brien was an elevator technician with a local Miami company. All four were dedicated drag racers, albeit, part-time, weekends-only types.

“As all had successful businesses or careers, they were unable to travel outside the Southeast, so the car was never actually tested at the NHRA national level,” Hill added. “It did challenge for and take the Standard 1320 Drag News Top Gas No. 6 spot in January 1965. Shapiro defeated Cleveland, Ohio's Dick Vest at Fort Myers, Fla.'s Buckingham Drag Strip to take the No. 6 spot. They later defended the 6 spot against Lanier Dickerson in the Tampa-based Blue Mist. In 1965, they ran off a string of six Top Eliminator wins in a row at Palm Beach Int'l Raceway, but business and work commitments prevented their venturing much outside their Florida area.”
 
The team's initial choice of power was Oldsmobile, topped by a chain-driven 6-71 blower and four-hole Hilborn injector, which was later replaced by a 480-cid Dodge B wedge engine that used a unique fuel-injection system made by Dayton, Ohio's Dr. Pete Orner. It was with this combination that it recorded its best numbers. The wedge Dodge carried ported heads obtained from the Ramchargers by Cohen's Tampa friend, a fellow by the name of Don Garlits, who had knowledge of these engines, having run one in Top Gas at the 1962-63 NHRA Nationals, before NHRA’s fuel ban was lifted in 1964.

According to Hill, Cohen still lives in the Miami area, and O'Brien and Sonnenblick survive. Shapiro passed away several years ago. After a search for authentic parts, the car was reassembled and is now on display at Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla.

Another of my great historic sources, Bret Kepner, weighed in with his pick for the first “modern” rear-engine car, (“whatever THAT means!”), citing Bob Lindwall’s Chicago-based Re-Entry car, which Wayne Hill drove. “It was, without argument, the first rear-engined Top Fuel car over 200 mph, having performed the feat at multiple tracks in 1966, including its 201.34 mph crash at Indy,” he stated.

To bolster his claim, Kepner pointed out that the car used a three-point roll bar, a spaced-tubing frame design, and drag-link steering. “Without its body panels, the car would not look too different than the 1969-1970 versions of Widner, Foster, Ong, Schacker, or Garlits.” he asserted.

At right is a great video of the car losing to Noel Mauer in the Mauer & Willis Iowa dragster in the second round of the 1966 World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova. According to Kepner, Hill had already qualified at 200.44 and ran 202.24 to defeat Doc Halladay in the Kinn, Manke & Halladay rig in the opening round. 

The rear-engine transition story would not be complete without more information on Bernie Schacker, who, as mentioned last week, had one of the earliest rear-engine Top Fuelers. Thanks to the ever-faithful Insider Nation, and Alex Ardizzone in particular, I was able to finally talk to Schacker a few days ago.

Schacker, an electrician in his mid-30s with four kids at the time, probably seems an unlikely candidate to make history, but I have confirmed that he indeed did make the first six-second clocking in a rear-engine dragster in mid-1970 and that he had been campaigning his car all that season, well before Garlits’ much-publicized accident with his front-engine car.

Schacker, who began tinkering with cars after getting out of the Navy, is a self-taught hot rodder who built his own race cars, including the historic rear-engine car. He had been competing in Top Fuel since the mid-1960s with front-engine cars and, despite their bad reputation, “didn’t see any reason why a rear-engined car wouldn’t work, and it certainly would be safer,” he said. To prove it to himself and others, he converted his final front-engine car to a rear-engine design by welding additional tubing behind the roll cage and moving the engine from his lap to behind his head. He used the exact drivetrain from the front-engine car, which is why the engine was so close to the rear tires, and the same steering ratio as the slingshot.

“People thought [rear-engine] cars were hard to drive because the driver wasn’t oriented to the attitude of the car and didn’t know when the car was out of shape," he said. "The first time I drove mine, at New York National [Speedway] during the week, I clipped a piston and got oil under the tires, but I knew exactly where I was. I was really happy to debunk that theory.”

This was all taking place at about the same time that Woody Gilmore debuted his ill-fated first rear-engine car, and when Pat Foster stacked up Gilmore’s car on one of its first runs, folks scoffed at Schacker’s efforts, too.

“My fellow racers thought I was nuts at first; they were writing my obituary,” he recalled with a laugh. “But everyone was interested in it because it was so different. Back then, the front-engined cars all pretty much looked the same.”

Schacker’s car also was outfitted with a rear wing from the outset, which also was a first.

Later that year, Schacker sold the car to Red Lang, of Dead End Kids fame, and continued to drive for the team through the 1971 U.S. Nationals, where they qualified but were unable to make eliminations due to engine damage.

Schacker was in and out of racing for more than a decade, dabbling here and there, but made a big splash in the late 1980s with a streamlined Top Alcohol Dragster that, naturally, he built himself with partner Rod Abrams. Inspired by the Top Fuel streamliners of Garlits, Gary Ormsby, and others, Schacker designed and built his car – including the body -- with an eye toward their slippery designs but with a shorter wheelbase of about 220 inches and some Funny Car ideas.

“It had a torsion-bar front suspension that I built, and the car handled real nice – it was smooth as glass at the top end -- but we were breaking a lot of motors, so we never really found out what it could do,” he lamented. “We wanted to go to A/Fuel, but the car was too heavy, so we parked it.”

Looking back over these past few columns, it’s clear that it was a long road to the success and acceptance of the rear-engine dragster as a viable and reliable design and that a lot of racers had a hand in bringing Top Fuel to its current state. Remember them the next time you’re sitting in the stands watching the cars practically defy the laws of physics. I’ll see you next week.

Posted by: Phil Burgess
Don Garlits showed that the rear-engine design was here to stay with a powerful victory at the 1971 NHRA Winternationals.

Although rear-engine Top Fuelers had found some limited success in 1970, it was Don Garlits’ powerful victory at the 1971 Winternationals that really turned the tide in favor of the new design. After scoring runner-ups at Lions Drag Strip and Orange County Int’l Raceway in the weeks preceding the Winternationals, “Big Daddy” put the detractors to rest in Pomona the first week of February.

As previously reported, a lot of people were looking askance and rolling their eyes at his Swamp Rat 14 when he rolled it out of the trailer at Lions a few weeks before the Winternationals, including, according to him, fellow chassis builders Woody Gilmore and Don Long. “It was funny,” he shared with me. “Both of these builders looked at my car at Lions, and I personally heard them tell customers that they could see right away what I was doing wrong.” According to Garlits, Don Prudhomme took a walk around the car and dismissively remarked, “Well, that’s one way to get publicity.”

Garlits also says that no one wanted to make time-trial runs next to him at Lions and was told by Lions manager C.J. Hart – who had witnessed Pat Foster’s terrifying tumble in December 1969 -- that if he crossed any of the barrier lines, the car would have to go back into the trailer. Garlits put all that aside, was runner-up to Gary Cochran’s slingshot, then duplicated that feat the next weekend at Orange County Int’l Raceway before heading to Pomona for the car’s official coming out.

Garlits didn’t initially have the quickest machine in Pomona, where the tight 32-car field was separated by just .33-second, perhaps thanks to traction compound that had been sprayed – via helicopter! – on the track Thursday. Norm Wilcox qualified No. 1 in "Terrible Ted" Gotelli's Northern California-based entry with a 6.70, just ahead of the surprise 6.73 from John Nichols in Jerry Dee Hagood's locally based Spartan Charger. Henry Harrison’s 6.76 at 223.32 (top speed of the meet) in the Ewell & Bell digger was third, just ahead of the 6.77 clocked by Pete Robinson, who was killed in an accident on the pass after his innovative ground-effects system malfunctioned.

Garlits was just the No. 9 qualifier with a mid-6.80 pass, but that all changed in eliminations. After a middling 6.85 win over Tommy Allen in round one – Harrison’s stunning 6.61 against Ronnie Martin was tops for the round, and the meet -- Garlits had low e.t. of the next three rounds, running a pair of 6.72s to beat Nichols and Carl Olson and then a 6.70 to beat Jim Dunn in the semifinals. Garlits’ final-round opponent, Kenny Safford in Larry Bowers’ car, was unable to make the call after a clutch swap between rounds, and Garlits, perhaps loaded for bear to put an exclamation point on his win, smoked his way to a 7.03.

Garlits didn't have the only rear-engine car at the event. This is Chuck Tanko's super-long (254-inch wheelbase) car. Driver Ken Ellis didn't make the field.

By the way, Garlits didn’t have the only rear-engine car in Pomona; a couple of cars that I mentioned last week -- Chuck Tanko’s super-long RCS-built machine with driver Ken Ellis and Tom Kaiser in the former Widner & Dollins car – also tried but failed to make the field. Ellis only made one pass in Pomona before withdrawing for unknown reasons.

(Interesting side note: The 1971 season was the first in which the class was officially called Top Fuel after NHRA replaced its previously official designation of AA/FD, which certainly made it simpler and perhaps more attractive to the mainstream fans and media. Similarly, AA/GD became Top Gas.)

Just five weeks after winning the Winternationals, Garlits also won the fabled March Meet in Bakersfield. In a theme similar to his Pomona conquest, Garlits started slow – he qualified just No. 14 at 6.79; Larry Dixon Sr. was low at 6.64 – but came on strong in eliminations. He beat his January slingshot nemesis, Cochran, in Carl Casper’s Young American, with a 6.72 that was second only to Prudhomme’s 6.69, then improved to a 6.68 in round two and a 6.67 in the quarterfinals to edge Prudhomme, who reportedly had Garlits covered until he banged the blower at the first light and slowed to a 6.72. It’s interesting to note that Prudhomme was still running his Long-built front-engine Hot Wheels car (the so-called “slab-sided” car) but had removed almost all of the bodywork, perhaps in a weight-savings ploy.

After a semifinal 6.71 over Watus Simpson (driving Vance Hunt’s entry with an engine donated between rounds by Don Cook), Garlits squared off in the final with 1970 Supernationals champ Rick Ramsey and the front-engine California Charger of Keeling & Clayton. Ramsey outran Garlits by a ton – his 6.642 reset low e.t. of the meet – but “Big Daddy” got there first win a ginormous holeshot and became the first Top Fuel driver to win the fabled meet twice.

(Above) In this remarkable photo from the 1971 March Meet, Garlits can be seen at left flashing the "V for victory" sign in the lights after driving by Don Prudhomme in the quarterfinals; note that "the Snake's" blower is askew. (Below) Garlits sealed his second big NHRA win of the season by defeating 1970 Supernationals champ Rick Ramsey on a huge final-round holeshot.

If the Pomona win had not been enough to convince the masses that Garlits had it right, the Bakersfield win surely did.

Even before Bakersfield, National Dragster announced that John Buttera had begun work on a wild new rear-engine machine for Prudhomme that would become his short-lived Hot Wheels wedge, and rear-engine dragsters began to show up across the country, with even slingshot heroes like former world champ Bennie “the Wizard” Osborn and Jim Nicoll (with driver Billy Tidwell) – who survived his harrowing clutch explosion at the previous year’s Nationals -- making the move.

Garlits qualified low at his hometown Gatornationals with a 6.53 -- and from what I could tell by looking though photos and event coverage, he had the only rear-engine car on the grounds -- but shut down too soon against eventual runner-up Sarge Arciero in round two and lost. Arciero finished behind Jimmy King to temporarily put the slingshots back atop the pack.

(Above) Iowa farmer Earl Binns received one of Garlits' earliest rear-engine customer cars. (Below) Garlits added a wing to his own car in the spring and won with it on the car at the NHRA Springnationals in Dallas.

Garlits, meanwhile, had taken several orders for cars, first among them from his old buddies Chris Karamesines and Tom McEwen, but the first to make a splash was Iowa’s Earl “the Fuelin’ Farmer” Binns, who debuted his rear-engine Garlits car in early April at Continental Divide Raceway’s Colorado Fuel Open, where Kaiser also had his car in competition. They bowed out in rounds one and two, respectively.

Before long, many of the major chassis builders, including Gilmore, Long, Roy Fjastad, and Frank Huszar, were taking orders left and right.

Garlits won again at the NHRA Springnationals in Dallas, setting low e.t. and top speed and defeating John Wiebe’s slingshot in the final. By now, Garlits’ dragster was sporting a rear wing, which he had added after the Gatornationals.

“After Pomona, I flew home to Tampa [Fla.], sitting beside Jim Hall of Chaparral fame; we talked about the car moving around a little on slick tracks in the middle,” Garlits told me last week. “Jim suggested a small wing to give me a little downforce without sacrificing a lot of drag. We got on that immediately. The small wing gave us .25-second better e.t. and a full 10 mph!”

Garlits’ rear-engine car wasn’t the only one running well in Dallas. Former Funny Car driver Arnie Behling wheeled Bruce Dodd’s new Gilmore-built, John "Tarzan" Austin-wrenched Spirit – with a wing mounted just behind the engine -- to the No. 3 qualifying spot behind Garlits and Wiebe. Prudhomme also debuted his radical wedge rear-engine dragster at this event – and scored Best Engineered Car honors – and qualified No. 17 but bowed out of his much-anticipated scheduled first-round race with Garlits due to a reported parts shortage; he also was running his Funny Car and his old front-engine car (Mike Snively driving) at the event. No fewer than six rear-engine cars were at the event, including the trio mentioned above as well as Binns (who was tearing it up in Division 5), Osborn, and Gary Bailey.

At the 1971 Summernationals in Englishtown, Behling, Dodd, and Austin became the second rear-engine national event winners and almost won again at the next event, the inaugural Grandnational in Quebec, but the slingshots would not easily give up the ground they had long dominated. Pat Dakin (and a broken rear end) stopped Behling in the Canada final, and then Steve Carbone and his front-engine car famously upset Garlits in the burndown in Indy. Gerry Glenn and Bill Schultz, whose stretched front-engine car had run the quickest e.t. in history that summer with a 6.41 (Garlits later ran a stunning 6.21 in Indy), won the World Finals (and the championship with it) over Garlits, and Hank Johnson beat Wiebe in an all-slingshot climax to the Supernationals. By the end of 1972, however, only Art Marshall would win again in a front-engine car [read The Slingshot's Last Hurrah].

Chassis builders, of course, were always the first to see the trend, based on their order books. I developed a couple of case studies using interviews with Southern California masters Gilmore and Long as well as some of their earliest customers as source material.

WOODY GILMORE

(Above) Woody Gilmore's first rear-engine NHRA Top Fuel win came with Arnie Behling in Bruce Dodd's Spirit at the 1971 Summernationals. (Below) Jeb Allen was another racer who got one of Gilmore's earliest models.

Gilmore’s biggest early rear-engine success, as noted, was the Dodd/Behling machine, which scored a win and a runner-up in 1971, but he also found early customers in two drivers who would go on to greater success: Jeb Allen and Olson.

Gilmore was friends with the Allen family – having built their previous front-engine cars for Jr. Fuel and Top Fuel – and patriarch Guy worked alongside Gilmore in his Race Car Engineering shop, trading labor in part for the cost to build his son’s car, which Gilmore remembers was the “fourth or fifth” rear-engine car to come out of his shop that year.

“When Garlits came along, everyone jumped on the bandwagon,” Gilmore said. “After that, I only built a few more front-engined cars, plus I also started building more Funny Cars, too, as they became more popular.”

Allen, who had spent the previous summer wrenching on Carbone’s car, had wanted no part in following his brother, Leslie, into the seat of a slingshot Top Fuel car, but when he saw the rear-engine car, he was hooked. Although he did license in the family’s slingshot at age 17, he only drove it on about a dozen runs before his new car was ready in late spring. He debuted the car at one of Lions’ weekly shows but only ran the car once more that season, at the year-ending Supernationals, where he impressed with a semifinal finish, falling to Wiebe in the final four. Allen would go on to win the Summernationals the next year to become the youngest Top Fuel winner in history (18 years, 1 month), a mark that still stands.

Carl Olson loved being behind the engine early in his dragster career but came to peace quickly with the new design; a Winternationals win didn't hurt.
Gilmore fit Olson for his first rear-engine car; that's partner Mike Kuhl at right. "Woody did a great job of making the car as comfortable as possible for the driver, which I deeply appreciated," said Olson. (Steve Reyes photo)

Olson and Mike Kuhl had considerably more Top Fuel experience than Allen, and Olson wasted no time getting acclimated – and quick – with their new machine.

“Our car was finished in June of 1971. We first ran it at Lions the day it was finished and ran the quickest we ever had by a full tenth on the very first pass,” he recalled. “We ran it locally a couple times at Lions and OCIR, then we hauled it back to Indy for the Nationals, where we won the Best Appearing Car award and ran very well [No. 3 qualifier behind Garlits and Carbone and a semifinal finish].

“Naturally, I was a bit concerned about how the change from FED to RED would affect me. The FED was an absolutely awesome ride, especially at night. With the front wheels dangling in the air, the tires hazing white smoke, and the engine belching huge nitro flames high into the air (only to watch them bend backward as the car gained momentum), followed by the almost assured loss of vision near the finish line due to various liquids gathering on one's goggles, it made for an experience second to none. And oh, how great it felt when the chute blossomed and you could pull your goggles down and start looking for the turnout after another thrilling pass.

“To be perfectly honest, the RED wasn't nearly as thrilling as the FED, but the REDs were much more comfortable. Right at the top of the comfort list was the ability to actually see where you were going instead of looking directly at the back of a 6-71 supercharger and fuel injector and looking at the few degrees of peripheral vision between the blower/injector and the header flames. Also, no longer having your legs draped over the rear-end housing with the ring and pinion gears mere fractions of an inch from your private parts made things much more comfortable as well.

"Unlike some others, I considered the RED to be much safer due to the lack of oil, fuel, water, and fire in my face. I did have some concern about potentially running under a single Armco guardrail but fortunately never had that happen to me as a few others unfortunately did. Double Armco and concrete barriers (which I pushed very hard for) helped to lessen or eliminate that particularly disastrous potential tragedy in the making. I came to love the REDs and at least partially because they were easier to drive and were much more comfortable, but I still consider my days at the controls of an FED to be the most exciting driving experiences of my life. Yeah, those were the days.”

Unlike Garlits, Kuhl and Olson ran the entire season without a rear wing (basically because they couldn’t afford one), but after Olson opened the 1972 season with his first NHRA win at the Winternationals, they quickly added one.

“Everyone was running pretty good without one, so we didn’t think it was imperative,” he recalled of the decision to forgo a wing, “but once we had some cash jingling in our jeans, the first thing we did was have Woody build us a wing. It didn’t help so much performance-wise, but stability-wise, it was like night and day. The car was stuck to the ground and went where you pointed it; before that, it was a challenge to do that. We kicked ourselves for not doing it sooner. Once we figured out and made some changes to accommodate for the wing, we probably picked up a full tenth of a second just by being planted to the ground.”

DON LONG

It didn’t take very long for Long to get his first order for a rear-engine car; according to Long’s meticulous bookkeeping, Tommy Larkin placed his request Jan. 11, just three days after Garlits' runner-up at Lions. Larkin’s was car No. 66 to enter the jig at Long's hallowed shop, and the first rear-engine car, but it was not the first to hit the track. It would, in fact, be almost a full year before the first Long-built rear-engine car – ordered by Wes Cerny in late June -- actually hit the track and, between those two rear-engine cars, Long had built and delivered a conventional slingshot to Jackie Peebles, the last front-engine dragster he would build.

The challenge of switching from a front-engine to a rear-engine car is daunting from the team aspect, but from the builder standpoint, Long was unfazed.

“It was easy, no big deal,” he remembered. “Most all the tooling was usable when simply moved on the chassis jig. The only part of the first rear-engine chassis that I remember going through an improvement was the bay between the driver and engine. It took a few chassis to get the tubing arranged to a better design, and when it got there, the industry followed. The Top Fuel chassis are still built this way today.

“Additionally, I am sure there was a business and enthusiasm factor during the transition stages. The REDs were perceived as a new product with innovation potentials that would obsolete the somewhat uninteresting repetitious FEDs. Back then, we had two major drivers of chassis sales: obsolescence and destruction.”

Long is a truly fascinating man. He’s strongly opinionated and deeply invested in the science of going fast. I think that all chassis builders probably have a bit of mad scientist in them, eager to experiment and innovate, and Long is clearly not just a guy who bends tubes and welds them together. (See Hot Rod magazine’s Take Five with Don Long for more insight into the man.) I asked him when he remembered seeing his first rear-engine dragster and why he didn’t build one before 1971.

“The first RED that I remember seeing in person was one built by John Peters and Nye Frank around 1960,” he remembered. “It was a tube-frame, short, Olds-powered RED and driven once by a guy named Jack [Gordon]. Jack’s only run was very short. The dragster was upside-down by the time it reached the tower at Lions. It wasn’t a good 'first Impression' for anyone. I never knew the cause, only that Peters and Frank moved on to FEDs.

“As years passed, the RED’s record got questionable, sometimes positive as found in the Speed Sport Roadster and sometimes negative as found when some strip owners didn’t want them around. Being as how the RED record was questionable, what I knew about aft C/G stability, virtually all winners were FEDs. I was told VWs and Corvairs handled ‘differently,’ but Porsches handled great. I didn’t see them as unworkable or vice versa. I just had a wait-and-see attitude. I certainly could not afford -- both financially and by reputation -- to be a ‘scout’ for the chassis industry. I played it safe as I did with heavy streamliners and heavy ‘lost-motion’ suspensions. ‘Decrease d-mass D. Long’ is my creed, and it is fixed in the most important formula of all for acceleration: F=ma [force equals mass times acceleration].”

Don Long's first rear-engine car for Wes Cerny and Don Moody featured a T-tail rear stabilizer, a precursor to Garlits' more modern "monowing."

Cerny, who was already running a front-engine car with driver Don Moody, ordered his car June 29, 1971, and it was delivered Nov. 13, just days before the season-ending Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway.

The Cerny & Moody car was especially memorable for its T-tail rear stabilizer, a fin mounted vertically between the rear wheels with small canard wings near the top on each side. At this time, few of the new rear-engine dragsters had rear wings as we know them today, and one might easily conclude that Long’s wing was the predecessor for the “monowing” like the one Garlits would make famous with his later Swamp Rats.

“The idea was rooted in the poor overall record of REDs at the time, and a nature law of stability -- separation between the center of gravity and the center of pressure (like an arrow and parachute),” said Long. “In layman’s terms, for horizontal stability, one wants the weight in front and the drag in back, and the tail (or rudder) is somewhat of a ‘stability on demand’ answer. It was an idea ahead of its time.

“To this day, I do not FULLY buy into the Garlits story about slowing down the steering as the one thing that he did for acceptable handling unless the steering was too fast to begin with. My REDs never had this problem, and their steering ratio was pretty much the same as my previous FEDs. I believe the biggest thing that helped REDs' handling was the rear wing, which simply moved the center of pressure rearward."

Don Moody has gone from four wheels to two but is still rolling.
We see what you mean, Moody. What could compare to this?

I exchanged emails with Cerny and Moody, who remain close friends some 45 years later despite their geographical distances. Cerny recently traveled to Thailand, where Moody lives, to ride bicycles; Moody is a fanatic about bike riding, usually putting in 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) a day.

Cerny remembered that they still had time for test runs with the new rear-engine car at Lions before heading to the Supernationals, where fuel-system problems kept them from qualifying. They ran the 1972 Winternationals, and the new tires they had loaded their old iron 392 so heavy that it split the block, sending the crankshaft out the bottom.

Moody remembered this being a tough time for the team, especially the driver.

“That was an indecisive time for us, due to a couple of factors,” he said. “We had ordered up the new rear chassis in hopes it would be quicker and more consistent, but at the same time, our front-engine car was working very well. We had just changed to Goodyear tires, which were good for a tenth consistently and easier to drive. We won seven of our last nine races with this combination along with new track e.t. records, but we were between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. On the first run with the new rear-engine car, I realized that we made a ‘mistake’; it ran no better than the front-engine car. Maybe more consistent but no quicker. Both cars ran a 6:37 as best.

“As far as driving goes, the rear-engine cars were not as exciting and nowhere near as much fun … for me anyway! Sitting out in front was like being perched on a fence -- no more wheelstands and driving with the seat of your pants trying to keep the car in your lane. Should the rear-engine car get out of shape, you had to lift because you were always behind on reactions with the engine and pivot point behind. In the early days, several drivers tried to drive the car crossed up; this normally ended in disaster. I do remember the rear-engine car was more sensitive to steering inputs. With a front-engine car, you more or less guided it down the track; with the rear-engine, you steered down the track. As a rule, the new rear-engine car would go straight as an arrow; it was quite boring, but, saying that, my firesuit stayed much cleaner with no clutch dust mixed with the traction compound in the burnout box. I guess that part was a plus? <grin>

“As far as getting comfortable with the rear-engine car, I’m not sure ‘comfortable’ is the term. I was ready to race it as soon as we took it out of the trailer, and I used the same starting-line measures that we had used with the front-engine car. It was all quite successful, but sitting in front vs. behind was similar to a black and white movie to Technicolor. I felt I had a front-row seat, out in front of everyone (all I needed was a program); this probably added to the boredom. Don't get me wrong here. I've never been lackadaisical about driving or riding anything; I was always aware and had great respect for these things. But front- or rear-engine? Rear-engine was a consistent winner but nothing as exciting as pulling to the starting line at night trying to see the Tree between the blower and the fire from the headers (with leaky port nozzles, I might add, since it gets real hot), the light flickers, and hit the loud pedal! The front-engine fuel car was an E-ticket ride.”

The Walton-Cerny-Moody car, their second rear-engine car from Long, set the world on its ear with a win and stunning 5.91 at the 1972 Supernationals.

Cerny sold the car to Lyle Dill in the spring of 1971 and, with partner and longtime friend Doug Walton, had Long build the Walton, Cerny & Moody car – car No. 77 for Long -- which also incorporated a new 426 powerplant and, much to Moody’s delight, the change from direct drive to a Lenco two-speed transmission (“Something for the driver to do!” he exulted).

“We knew that we needed more power, so we tried to decide on a Donovan 417 block or a 426 engine,” recalled Moody. “It was Wes’ decision (and I agreed) that we go with a new car (again) and a Keith Black 480-inch ‘late model.’ My feeling was the late model had a better RPM range, giving it longer legs, and since we were going to use a Lenco two-speed, it would still run better than everyone else out there. (Ha ha, I was never the smartest guy around, but I was good friends with those who were pretty clever.) Anyway, to make a long story short, the new Don Long with a Keith Black 480 engine cleaned up the bog, so to speak, and this combination was very successful.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. In addition to winning the huge-for-then $35,000 purse at the PRA National Challenge in Tulsa, Okla., they won the 1972 Supernationals with a staggering 5.91-second elapsed time and finished the year by being the last track record holder at Lions with a 6.01 at The Last Drag Race.

“Looking back at it all, we consistently ran four-tenths of a second quicker by going to the rear-engine car in less than a year’s time,” reflected Moody. “So there it is: the rear-engine car was by far the best deal for us and drag racing.

“But that didn't make it any less boring,” he added wryly.

Boring or not, as Moody noted, the design forever changed the sport, and certainly for the better. The rapid drop in elapsed time -- from Prudhomme’s 6.43 at the end of 1970 to Garlits’ 6.21 by the end of 1971 to Moody’s 5.91 by the end of 1972 was stunning, and the best speed went from 235 to 243 mph – notwithstanding, the safety factor and peace of mind that it gave drivers, owners, crew chiefs, and even fans was easily worth any low e.t.

Sure, anyone who ever saw front-engine cars run misses them, but 40 years and many design changes later, Top Fuelers are still the greatest and most awesome racing machines on the planet and one of the many reasons we all love this sport.

Next week: Some early trailblazing rear-engined dragsters from the 1950s and '60s

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