As we wind down this 50 Years of Funny Car celebration, with Ron Capps – a huge fan of the history of our sport -- finally and fittingly crowned the champion, I took a look back over the list of champions who had preceded him and whose company he now shares for all of history, heroes such as Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, John Force, and so many others.
Capps’ championship put an end to his often-tortuous wait to wear the crown, and he certainly was the most overdue Funny Car racer to do so, but it’s also easy to look at the list below (a list of amazingly only 20 racers for the 50-year history of the class) and notice missing names: Ed McCulloch, Tom McEwen, Don Schumacher, Billy Meyer, Whit Bazemore, Al Hofmann – guys who, despite their amazing accomplishments and longevity in the class, never got to have the big No. 1 on their car.
Gene Snow (1970)
NHRA didn't crown a Funny Car champ until 1970, and through 1973, the champions were crowned on the basis of winning the World Finals, though they all had to qualify, based on points, to compete at the event. Snow might have won the title on a pure points basis anyway as he scored three wins (Summernationals, World Finals, and Supernationals) in the seven-race season to go with runner-ups at the Winternationals and Springnationals.
Phil Castronovo (1971)
The Castronovo family’s Custom Body Enterprises Dodges were among the East Coast’s toughest in the early 1970s, and Phil earned the 1971 world championship by winning the World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, in the family's mini Charger in what was his first and only final-round appearance. It would be hard to say that his win was not fortuitous because he won the semifinals and final over favorites Leroy Goldstein and Jake Johnston, respectively, when both suffered broken rear ends while leading him. Interestingly, Castronovo didn’t get to wear the No. 1 in 1972 because at the time, NHRA rules awarded the No. 1 to the Top Fuel champ, No. 2 to the Funny Car champ, and No. 3 to the Pro Stock champ.
Larry Fullerton (1972)
Jake Johnston again was the victim of an upset champion at the World Finals in Amarillo, Texas. After dominating eliminations with a run as quick as 6.51, his Gene Snow-owned Dodge dropped a cylinder and lost in the final to Fullerton’s Trojan Horse Mustang, which to that point had run no quicker than 6.64. Like Castronovo before him, Fullerton made the most of his only NHRA national event final-round appearance.
Frank Hall (1973)
Driving for Northwest mainstays Jim and Betty Green, future NHRA Division Director Hall won the 1973 world championship in the Jerry Verhuel- and Jim Green-tuned Green Elephant Vega. Hall, the Division 6 champ that season, secured the title with a holeshot victory in the final in Amarillo, Texas, defeating Bobby Rowe and the Mr. Ed Satellite, 6.39 to 6.38.
Shirl Greer (1974)
I tried really hard not to include the almost requisite photo of Greer’s Mustang on fire at the 1974 World Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway, but that’s the story everyone knows. Although Greer also won Le Grandnational earlier in the year, it was his heroic and dramatic comeback after a qualifying fire that badly burned him and his car that will always be the signature moment of his championship year.
Don Prudhomme (1975-78)
“The Snake” opened an era of multiyear dominance in the class by winning four straight championships in his U.S. Army-affiliated machines, scoring the 1975 and 1976 titles in his Monza and 1977 and 1978 crowns in an Arrow. During that span, Prudhomme won 19 of his 49 national event titles, including seven in an eight-race 1976 campaign.
Raymond Beadle (1979-81)
Beadle and the Blue Max took the class by storm for a three-year run that made him one of the most popular drivers of the era. Although his win totals don’t approach Prudhomme’s – his best season was 1980, when he won three times, and his career win total was just 14 – he did win the U.S. Nationals twice and set a new standard for apparel marketing to fans.
Frank Hawley (1982-83)
Everyone knew the Chi-Town Hustler name after years of match race barnstorming, but no one took the team seriously when it showed up at the 1982 Winternationals with its million-mile Dodge hauler and relative unknown Canadian Frank Hawley at the wheel. Guided by the sport’s until-then best-kept secret, tuner Austin Coil, the team won four times that year en route to upsetting the apple cart and three times the next season for back-to-back championships.
Mark Oswald (1984)
After finishing second in Top Fuel in 1982, the vaunted Candies & Hughes team returned to its 1960s Funny Car roots but brought along its second-year dragster driver Mark Oswald, who finished second in his first year in Funny Car in 1983 and won the championship the following year in the team’s Old Milwaukee beer-sponsored Trans Am. Oswald, of course, is now the world championship tuner for Antron Brown's Top Fueler.
Kenny Bernstein (1985-88)
The Budweiser King ascended the Funny Car throne for the first of four straight years with a high-tech Ford Tempo that brought the class into a new era of aerodynamics. Tuned and masterminded by Dale Armstrong, the Budweiser King Ford and Buicks moved the class’ evolution forward with innovations such as the lockup clutch, advanced fuel-system controls, and data recorders. In his four-year reign, Bernstein won an amazing 21 events.
Bruce Larson (1989)
Kenny Bernstein’s reign was ended by what many would consider an unlikely hero in Larson, who had been competing in the class since its earliest years but had never seriously challenged for a championship. With Maynard Yingst calling the tuning shots and backing from Sentry Tachs & Gauges, the Pennsylvania veteran won six times in 1989, bookended by wins at the season opener and season finale in Pomona.
John Force (1990-91, 1993-2002, 2004, 2006, 2010, 2013)
Entering the 1990 season, Force and crew chief Austin Coil had just five victories in the previous three seasons as they learned to work and grow together. In 1990, they won seven times and eked out the championship ahead of Ed McCulloch by less than three rounds of racing. Force and Coil dominated the next decade with their Castrol GTX-backed machines, racking up even more championships and race wins. Today, Force is far and away the winningest driver in any class, with 147 victories and 16 championships.
Cruz Pedregon (1992, 2008)
Just when John Force thought that he might ride the wave forever after back-to-back titles in 1990 and 1991, Pedregon broke up what would have been a decade-long domination by edging him for the crown in 1992. At the wheel of the Larry Minor-owned McDonald’s Olds, Pedregon won six times – including in Indy – to outlast Force, who crashed at the season’s final two events in his frenzied bid to maintain his crown. Sixteen years later, Pedregon became just the sixth driver to win more than one championship, as a team owner of his Advance Auto Parts Toyota.
Tony Pedregon (2003, 2007)
Cruz Pedregon’s younger brother, Tony, joined him as a Funny Car world champ in 2003 while driving a second Castrol team car for his brother’s nemesis, John Force. Like his big brother, Tony added a second title of his own as a car owner four years later with his Dickie Venables-tuned Quaker State Chevy. Before he retired to become NHRA’s television analyst, Pedregon had accumulated 43 wins. At the time, he was second only to Force but has since slipped to third behind Ron Capps as well.
Gary Scelzi (2005)
“The Wild Thing” wheeled Don Schumacher’s Oakley Dodge to the Funny Car crown in 2005, five years after winning his third and final Top Fuel championship while driving for Alan Johnson. Scelzi’s machine, tuned by Mike Neff, won three times that season and edged teammate Ron Capps by just eight points at season’s end. With the championship, Scelzi became just the second driver – behind Kenny Bernstein – to win championships in both nitro classes.
Robert Hight (2009)
Hight made one of the greatest comebacks of the Countdown to the Championship era. The driver of John Force Racing’s Mike Neff-tuned Auto Club Mustang barely qualified for the postseason playoffs, then won in Charlotte, Dallas, and Las Vegas to move from the No. 10 spot all the way to No. 1 and become the third JFR driver to add to the team’s impressive championship count.
Matt Hagan (2011, 2014)
Hagan made his Funny Car debut in 2008, and it didn’t take the Virginia cattle farmer long to make hay in the class, winning the 2011 championship in Don Schumacher’s Tommy DeLago-tuned DieHard Dodge – a season highlighted by him making the class’ first three-second run at the fall Charlotte event – and then returning to the champion’s podium three years later with the Mopar Express Lane Dodge, wrenched by Dickie Venables.
Jack Beckman (2012)
Beckman not only added his name to the list of Funny Car champions but also became the first former Sportsman national champ to do so. Beckman, who won the 2003 Super Comp championship, earned the crown by the narrowest of margins, eking out the title by just two points over teammate Ron Capps.
Del Worsham (2015)
Worsham became just the third driver to win championships in Top Fuel and Funny Car, joining Kenny Bernstein and Gary Scelzi on the elite list. Worsham, who won the 2011 Top Fuel crown then took a break from driving to tune Alexis DeJoria’s Funny Car in 2012, won four of the six Countdown to the Championship events after entering as the No. 4 seed and held off Jack Beckman by less than three rounds for the title.
Ron Capps (2016)
After four second-place finishes (including 2012’s heartbreaker), Capps finally broke through for the title with his Rahn Tobler-tuned NAPA Auto Parts Charger and did so in dominating fashion, with five wins – including his milestone 50th -- and five runner-up finishes. He took over the points lead in Englishtown and never relinquished the top spot for the remainder of the season.
Twenty champions over 50 years doesn’t sound like a lot (even considering that John Force monopolized 16), but it’s clear that the days when a Force or a Prudhomme or a Bernstein could rip off four straight championships are long gone. The class is so tight and so competitive now that there have been five different champs in the last five seasons and eight in the last 10, and there hasn’t been a back-to-back champion since Force in 2001-02. People like to say that the 1970s were the heyday of Funny Car racing, but a lot of people might argue that the competition now is as great as it has ever been.
With the NHRA offices closed for the Thanksgiving holiday, the ol’ Dragster Insider is also taking Friday off to spend time with family and friends.
As always, I am thankful for family, good friends, good health, and a great job, and you can bet that my friends here in the Insider Nation are way up on my “be thankful for” list.
When I began writing this column in July 2007 – I did not realize until I just typed 2007 that we’re coming up on 10 years – I had no idea that it would become what it has, which is a collaborative effort to tell and share great old stories and photos and, of special import to me, to get it all down as accurately and completely as possible not only for future generations of fans but for those of us who lived it and always wanted to know “the stories behind the stories.”
So thank you, loyal and supportive readers, for sharing your thoughts and memories, your personal photos and keepsakes. It has made this column 100 times better than I could ever do it alone. And thank you for the gratitude you have shown me. There hasn’t been a single national event that I’ve covered in the last few years where I haven’t been stopped by a fan or a crewmember and told how much they enjoy and look forward to this column each Friday. It takes a village, and we are one, so thank you for that.
I’ll see you next week.
As “Jungle Jim” Liberman probably would have exclaimed, having the No. 1 Funny Car of all time on the fan-voted top-20 list is pretty “farrrrrr out.”
Yes, race fans, when the final votes were tabulated, Liberman’s vaunted ’73 Vega emerged atop the pack, beating out John Force’s record-setting '96 Castrol Firebird for the top spot.
As you can see in the final table below, the Insider Nation didn’t agree with much of the fan vote, but they did agree on No. 1, as did two-time Funny Car world champ and current NHRA on FOX analyst Tony Pedregon, whose personal top 20 didn’t mesh much with the other lists.
|"Jungle Jim" Liberman '73 Vega
|John Force '96 Castrol Firebird
|Dale Pulde War Eagle '77 Trans Am
|Don Prudhomme '75 Army Monza
|Raymond Beadle Blue Max ’75 Mustang II
|Don Prudhomme Hot Wheels '70 Barracuda
|Don Nicholson Eliminator '66 Comet
|Chi-Town Hustler '69 Dodge Charger
|Kenny Bernstein "Batmobile" Budweiser King '87 Buick
|Jack Beckman Infinite Hero '15 Dodge Charger
|Jim Dunn/Dunn & Reath '72 Barracuda
|Ramchargers '70 Dodge Challenger
|Pat Foster/Barry Setzer '72 Vega
|Ed McCulloch Revellution '72 Demon
|Danny Ongais/Mickey Thompson '69 Mustang
|Kenny Bernstein Bud King '84 Tempo
|Don Prudhomme Pepsi Challenger '82 Trans Am
|Jim White/Hawaiian Punch '91 Dodge
|Gene Snow Rambunctious '70 Challenger
|Jack Chrisman '67 Comet
And when I asked you last Friday for a quick head to head between just Liberman and Force, the results were similar, with Liberman winning a close battle, 52 to 47 percent..
All of the votes favoring Liberman seem to reflect both the fans’ love for nostalgia -- Dana Peterson, cylinder-head guru at Brad Anderson Enterprises and a teammate on my weekly recreational hockey team, opined in the locker room last week that maybe it was because so many of us grew up building the Revell model of that famed Vega -- and the unmitigated fact that Liberman is still a legendary figure in our sport nearly 40 years after his passing. The fact that Force was right there, a wheel length behind Liberman, also affirms his position in the class’ history as one of its most popular figures. Add his winning record to his unprecedented popularity, and he’s probably the top Funny Car driver of all time by almost any other measure.
John Force wanted Jim Liberman to win the top spot, and before the announcement feted "Jungle Pam," whose reaction to "Jungle's" win was priceless.
Yet even Force remains in awe of Liberman. He shared several stories with me about his all-too-short interactions with “Jungle Jim,” encounters that left a lasting impression.
“I was at Edmonton [Int’l Speedway], I’ll never forget it,” Force said. “His car was up on jack stands, and he was underneath doing the bottom end and then reaching up to turn the motor over by himself. I’d never seen that done before. He was a one-man band.
“I remember one race at Orange County, and he was late getting to the line. I see the car coming down the return road, and he’s sitting on the headers running the valves as the car is rolling down the return road. I’d never seen anyone do that, either.
“Another time when I’m supposed to run him, and he’s late again, so they tell me I have a single. I do my burnout, and here he comes, burning out down the return road like a wild man, but they sent me on a single. Here’s where the story gets interesting. I used to sell my old firesuits so I’d have enough money to buy the next one, and I sold it to some guy who ended up working on the emergency crew. He was wearing it when ‘Jungle’ comes back up the return road, and he runs over and grabs this guy by the shirt and starts choking him. I thought, ‘He’s nuts!’ I ran over there, and people were telling me ‘Jungle’ was beating up John Force because he wouldn’t wait on him. I ran over and saw what was happening and told ‘Jungle’ that I was John Force. He looked over and said, ‘I know who you are.’ I didn’t understand why he was doing that, but he told me later, ‘It’s all part of the show, kid.’ "
Far and away the most emotional that Force gets when talking about “Jungle” is his interaction with Old Bridge Township Raceway Park owner Vinny Napp, who had the extreme fortune to have Liberman as a regular calling card at his Englishtown track.
Force in Englishtown, 1978
Force recalls, “I got a phone call from Vinny Napp, who told me that ‘Jungle’ had passed, and he told me he needed me to come to his track because he needed another ‘Jungle Jim.’ I told him, ‘I’m no ‘Jungle Jim’; I can’t even win a race,’ and he said that ‘Jungle’ didn’t win all the races either, but he was an entertainer, with his long burnouts and ‘Jungle Pam.’
“So I went to Englishtown, and I told Vinny again, ‘I ain’t no “Jungle Jim," ' but I did want a [comped hotel] room; no, I want two rooms. And I want to have a life and make some money. He got all emotional, almost crying, because he really loved ‘Jungle,’ and he told me, ‘I lied to you. No one will ever replace ‘Jungle,’ but if you listen to me, I’ll make you a star at our Wednesday night shows, and that’s when I started staying on the East Coast, running Atco, Reading, New England. Staying back there, I ended up at this little burger place – best burger I ever ate – and there was a picture of ‘Jungle’ on the wall because he used to eat there. So I’m sitting there with a couple of my guys, and two young girls walk in and said they wanted to talk to me because I was a race car driver. This is back in 1978, before I was ever in the NHRA circuit. And they said, ‘Did you know “Jungle Jim?" ’ because he used to come in there all the time. I gave them an autograph and felt like a real big shot; it was amazing to be part of that era.”
Mike Lewis, who ran Maple Grove Raceway when “Jungle” was its biggest attraction in the 1970s, shared a favorite Liberman memory with me.
“Our NHRA divisional races drew 16 or more Funny Cars for eight-car fields back in the 1970s,” he recalled. “We negotiated match race fees with local and touring teams with the stipulation that they ran the NHRA race, and ‘Jungle’ was no exception. He honored his commitment each year, often bringing a second car with Roy Harris or Jake Crimmins at the wheel. The fact that NHRA officials were in charge didn’t change his penchant for arriving last-minute.
“One year around 1975, he arrived with only minutes until NHRA Tech was scheduled to close. I followed his box truck with my company car and handed him my keys and a tow strap with advice to get his car into the tech line without delay. He made it with seconds to spare. By late Saturday, ‘Jungle’ advanced to the final round against Tom Sneden’s Bob Banning Dodge. Although racing for a fraction of his match race fees ‘Jungle’ delivered his normal long, smoky burnouts, each followed by a dry burnout in spite of NHRA rules prohibiting second burnouts. (Fans loved the burnout ritual mostly because they got to see ‘Jungle Pam’ twice each run.)
"Jungle" in the Maple Grove winner's circle; Mike Lewis is at far right.
“His second burnouts were just over the starting line in qualifying but were a little longer each round until NHRA officials issued a warning. When ‘Jungle’s’ dry burnout took him past the Christmas Tree in the final, an NHRA official had enough. He rushed out of the tower to declare a disqualification only to watch Sneden follow suit with his own dry burnout to the Tree. In the ensuing race, Liberman won the event title after which he posed for pictures with the same NHRA official as if nothing happened. He then ventured to the Maple Grove bar and broke out his harmonica. On a really special occasion, Lew Arrington would play alongside with his spoons. Then, well after midnight, ‘Jungle’ and Pam would typically climb into their truck and head off to Epping, Englishtown, or Capitol Raceway, where they would again arrive with just minutes to spare.
“Jim Liberman gave a lot of us premature gray hair, but he never let our fans down.”
So, what became of the famed Vega? It has been well-documented that Liberman sold it to “Nitro Nick” Boninfante, who had Frank Siti put a ’74 nose on it and turned it into one of his U.S. Male entries, driven by Pat Walsh. Boninfante’s son, Nicky, helped fill in the blanks after that, telling me recently that they then sold the car to Alex Hopper, a Philadelphia-based employee at US Air and Piedmont who ran the car under the name Thor.
Although he only ran the car one season, Hopper held on to it for decades. Eventually, it came to the attention of Don Garlits, who reportedly saw a classified ad for the car in Hemmings Motor News. Garlits made a few investigative calls, enough to convince him to hook up a trailer and head for Bloomsburg, Pa. He gave the car a thorough look-see, and because he was familiar with the way that chassis builder Romeo Palamides built his cars, was convinced (the giant embroidered “J.J.” in the well-worn driver’s seat wasn’t a bad hint, either).
The car now resides in the Don Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla., and still features Boninfante's nose job. According to Nicky, Siti had the original flat nose on the wall of his shop for a long time, but it was lost after his passing. It’s too bad that Garlits couldn’t reunite the two pieces, but it's still very cool that the actual car exists and is on display for all to see.
Also, it's worth noting that although it was the flat-nose '73 Vega that we were celebrating (and I honestly can't tell you why the fans picked that one over others), Liberman himself did run the slant-nose Vega body in 1974 (most famously in the wheelstanding final at the 1974 Summernationals, as shown in this great Tim McDonough photo that graced the cover on one of NHRA National Dragster's Readers Choice issues that had a story on "Jungle" in it), as well as the red version in which he won the event the following year before switching to a Monza.
“Jungle Jim” Liberman certainly didn’t need this honor to cement his legacy in our sport; that was done long before that fateful September 1977 crash, but I keep going back to how National Dragster handled his passing.
As you may know or have gathered, Liberman and NHRA could be at odds over a number of things, so it’s surprising to look back at the Sept. 23 issue and read what was published.
Now, you have to realize that back then, Wally Parks still had a pretty stern hand on the tiller and frowned on overly sentimental prose in Dragster, but this one must have gotten 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.”
“Jungle Jim” or “Brute Force”? Nostalgic hero or modern-day legend? Vega or Firebird? Those are the questions that will be answered this weekend in Pomona when NHRA unveils the car atop the list of its yearlong fan vote among the top 20 Funny Cars of all time.
In one corner, “Jungle Jim” Liberman, a gypsy of the match race scene who rarely ran NHRA national events yet wowed fans with wild antics and a comely conspirator in “Jungle Pam” Hardy.
In the other corner, John Force, winner of an NHRA-record 147 national events and 16 championships, a fast-talking ex-trucker turned pursuer of Corporate America.
As I noted in a previous column, the fan votes are just as likely for the man as for any of his machines, though Liberman’s blue ’73 Chevy Vega, with the familiar “jungle man” swinging on a vine down its flanks, is as instantly recognizable and, on match race terms – be that wins or popularity – as successful as Force’s instantly recognizable green and white Castrol ‘96 Firebird that set and still holds a number of single-season class national event records.
So, who should get the nod? When I had Force all to myself in my office a few weeks ago, just two guys talking about drag racing, he humbly told me, “Maybe I’ll win, and maybe I won’t, and maybe I shouldn’t because he is the greatest of all time. I don’t base that on winning championships or finding money. I’d like to think I might win, but he ought to.” (You'll get the chance to vote for your choice at the end of this column.)
If we believe then that people are voting for the man or the machine, the question is obvious: What makes one greater than the other? Although the cars are as dissimilar as the two-decade link between them, it’s safe to say that Liberman and Force were cut from the same mold: up-from-nothing guys who were relentless self-promoters who garnered huge legions of fans with their personalities as much as their on-track activities and who loved “working the ropes,” as Force calls signing autographs.
Austin Coil, Force’s longtime crew chief and one of Liberman’s best friends, agreed that there “are an awful lot of similarities” between the two and that, given the chance, they’d be even more alike.
"Jungle" loved his fire burnouts
Rules prohibited Force from fire burnouts, but he could smoke 'em good.
Obviously, you’ll never see Force arrive late to a race, fire up the Peak Chevy in the street, and drive it through the gates and onto the starting line as “Jungle” was known to do, and the last fire burnout Force did was probably when he kicked the rods out on a burnout, but that's just because things are a little more buttoned down, both in NHRA rules and corporate expectations. But what if … ?
“Let’s just say that everything that Jim did back then, John would do today if they’d let him,” Coil said. “The long burnouts have always been a part of John’s act, but I don’t think that NHRA would be too keen on fire burnouts.
“One thing about ‘Jungle’ was that he certainly was not fussy about details." he added. "When he drove my car once, the fact that all of the controls were in a different place than his car didn’t bother him a bit. Force likes to have his controls the same from car to car, but they both had plenty of natural talent.”
Longtime Liberman pal “Berserko Bob” Doerrer told NHRA National Dragster a few years ago that Liberman “had a way of making all of this look very spontaneous, and it drove the fans wild. But ‘Jungle’ had all of this very carefully planned with larger fuel and water tanks built into his car. There was a definite method to his madness.”
Although Force can’t get all wild and crazy on the racetrack, his P.T. Barnum-like skills are no less formidable. He’ll steal every spotlight – not by design, but by nature – just by being in the room. He never met a microphone or camera he didn’t love or a media member he couldn’t charm or at least disarm. He’s a gravitational force all of his own.
Probably the biggest difference between the two is that Liberman was a hands-on mechanic who tuned and serviced his own engines while Force has gained his success by hiring others to do that. It's not like Force doesn't know which end of the hammer to hit with -- he helped worked on his own cars for years in the start -- but his skills are best spent elsewhere.
Opined Coil, “John will be the first to tell you that he can’t work on a car, but I was amazed at what a fabulous, hardworking, and innovative mechanic Liberman was. He’d warm up the car all by himself without anybody sitting in it. He’d whack the throttle with the car sitting on jack stands, then walk around to make the necessary adjustments. He really was a one-man show. He once built a running race car from a pile of tubing in just 18 days, and he even did the lettering. He had tremendous talents with anything that could be done with his hands.”
“He had a real feel for everything mechanical,” recalled Hardy. “He was very innovative. [If he had lived longer] he probably would have come up with something that changed the direction of drag racing.”
The ability to sell his act to track management notwithstanding, Liberman was not nearly the salesman that Force is, at least on the corporate side, but maybe that was his choosing. He answered to no one but himself and the number of dates he wanted to fill. Other than the Revell deal that first showed up on the Vega in question, Liberman had no other major backers (but lots of local support), but that might have changed had Liberman not met his end. It has been well-documented that Liberman was wooing 7-Eleven, and a number of insiders have told me that in going through “Jungle’s” effects after his passing, they found a letter from 7-Eleven expressing an interest in going forward with him. What could have been ...
“I think ‘Jungle’ knew how popular he was, but he wasn’t as committed as, say, ‘Snake’ and ‘Mongoose’ to the whole sponsorship thing,” recalled Hardy. “He just didn’t fit the corporate mold.”
Force, on the other hand, seldom met a CEO he couldn’t at least make laugh if not open a checkbook. From Leo's Stereo to Wendy's to Coca-Cola to Castrol to Peak and all of the deals for his drivers (Auto Club, Traxxas, Monster, et al), he knows how to land the big fish. His well-publicized troubles of a few years ago are a distant memory (though likely not forgotten). Force is the proverbial guy who could sell ice cubes to an Eskimo, but with a proven track record and with a work ethic such as he has – and that he instills in his drivers – to tirelessly and relentlessly service his sponsors and fans, he’s selling something way more desirable. He knows the game and plays it very well.
In 2008, Force became the first NHRA driver to record 1,000 round-wins. Entering this weekend's event, it's up to 1,260.
Jim Liberman's shining moment: a win at the 1975 Summernationals
Force has to win, or it eats him up. He has to win on the track, in the boardroom, with his daughters, in the public perception – everywhere. He’ll hold team meetings, evangelize and proselytize, to rally his troops and supporters.
Even when he was on the verge of being mathematically eliminated from this year’s championship race, Force would have none of it. “I don’t care what the math says,” he said. “Until they tell me it’s impossible to win the championship, I am going to fight with everything that I have to win it. We won’t stop until we walk into the banquet and we know where we stand.”
Liberman didn’t much like to lose, either. Although he once said of his faster opponents, “I don’t have to beat them; I just have to put on a better show,” winning was still winning, losing still losing.
Recalls Hardy, “If ‘Jungle’ lost, you didn’t run up and talk to him – he was busy reviewing it in his mind – but he picked up the pieces and went to the next race. When he lost the final round at Englishtown in 1974, it was absolutely crushing. On the other hand, when he won the race the next year, he was walking on cloud nine. It was a vindication of his talents.”
This is a tough one because Liberman’s career spanned just a dozen years, from his start in 1965 in the Hercules Nova to that fateful encounter with a bus in September of 1977, and who knows what the future might have held.
“He did mention that he wanted to quit driving and just build the engines,” Hardy told me. “He might have been seeing the big picture. He wasn’t a kid anymore; hell, he was almost 32 when he died. Remember: ‘Never trust anyone over 30.’ ”
Coil is sure that Liberman, who would be 72 now, would still be involved somehow if he were still alive.
“You have to remember that Liberman was almost 32 when he died,” he said. “John Force was probably a lot wilder at that age, too, but John has mellowed out over the years, and I think the same thing would’ve happened to ‘Jungle’ if he had lived.”
Force is 67 and has been racing Funny Cars for more than 40 of those years, and he’s still a proven winner. The end may be in sight – he hints at it all the time – but he’s not there yet by a long shot. His kids racing alongside him keeps him young, and winning and secure sponsorship don’t hurt, either. There’s no doubt he’ll top 150 wins before he’s done, and he'll probably win another championship.
So … who do you think will win? Vote now. (This poll will only stay open until the reveal on Saturday’s qualifying show from Pomona.)