The top three: LibermanFriday, October 28, 2016

With the big reveal coming this weekend on which of the three finalists in the Top 20 Funny Cars list will make the final pairing, it’s time to take a look at the third car on the list: “Jungle Jim” Liberman’s 1973 Vega Funny Car.

The Vega — built by Romeo Palamides and campaigned from mid-1972 through the end of ’73 — wasn’t the car that got him started, the car in which he last competed, or even the car in which he won his one and only NHRA national event title. It was the only “Jungle” car on the list, so I have to believe that some of those fans who voted for this car were voting for the man as well as the machine.

And why not?

When it comes to Funny Car heroes, there are few whose accomplishments are not measured in championships, national event wins, and record-breaking e.t.s, but Russell James Liberman is surely one whose career transcended those kind of stats.

He died early — just two days shy of his 32nd birthday — in a puzzling highway accident near his West Chester, Pa., home, and like gravitational celebrities before him, like James Dean and Jim Morrison, that may have only added to his mystique (weird, too, that Presley Elvis died Aug. 16, just 24 days after “Jungle’s passing; two “kings” gone in less than a month). Almost a quarter-century after his passing, Liberman was still so highly regarded that he was voted No. 17 on NHRA’s Top 50 Drivers list in 2001.

(Before we get too far in this story, it’s worth noting that, although you, I, and everyone else have for decades have heard “Jungle’s” surname pronounced as Lee-ber-man, it was, in fact, Lib-er-man; kinda like how Connie — and Doug and Scott, for that matter — Kalitta is Kuh-let-ta and not Kuh-lee-ta and how Jim Nicoll was Ni-cole and not Nick-el. But I digress ... )

Unlike Dale Pulde and John Force, whose cars make up the other two-thirds of the finalists, “Jungle” obviously is not here to bask in the glory of the moment, so I got the next best thing: his longtime girlfriend and partner in dragstrip showmanship, “Jungle Pam” Hardy.

She was an 18-year-old high school senior just weeks from graduation in their shared West Chester hometown when he spied her walking down the street in May 1972. He pulled over in his screaming yellow ’72 Corvette and changed both of their lives. She had never been further from home than the next town over, had already been accepted to the local college, but hit the road and spent the next five years in snug-fitting halter tops and cut-off jean shorts backing him up after his traditional long burnouts and giving his fans even more to look at than his trademark Chevy floppers.

Although she also backed up his Camaro and Monzas, she says that the Vega is without question her favorite Junglemobile because it was on that car that the vine-swinging caricature came to life, personifying the car and the driver. The ’72 Camaro that preceded it had a caricature, too, but not as refined as the one on the Vega.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that ‘Jungle’ made the list to begin with, but it does surprise me it’s so high, mostly because he’s been gone for so long,” she said. “But ‘Jungle’ fans are pretty passionate about him, and it seems like every one that I talk to has a story. It wasn’t just an autograph they got from him, but how he interacted with them, how he said or did something that just stuck with them. He was larger than life, and his enthusiasm for life always came across.

“When you add that with his skill of driving the car and then you put the sex angle out there [with her], it was the whole package for the ’70s. I’m not sure why no one else tried to duplicate what we were doing; I think maybe we were just lightning in a bottle.”

“Berserko Bob” Doerrer, another part of the “Jungle” entourage, was very familiar with his friend’s charm and almost Pied Piper-like following. In an interview several years ago in National Dragster, he remembered, “[Liberman] was a maniac, and everybody loved him. He was always playing his harmonica between rounds, and after the race, he’d invite fans to his pit area for a party. At any given time during the match-race season, there would be six to eight racing ramp trucks at ‘Jungle’s’ house in West Chester, Pa. It seemed like all of the other racers gravitated toward him.”

Jim Cutler

The fact that Liberman or one of his second cars — driven by a number of drivers, including Pete Williams, Jake Crimmins, Russell Long, and Roy Harris — were seemingly omnipresent on the match-race trail built him a large and loyal following, but it wasn’t always easy. Often it was just “Jungle” and Pam and “whoever fit on the bench seat in the truck next to us,” roaming gypsy-like across the country, filling hundreds of match-race dates,

“We’d run three days a week, and it was nothing for us to drive from Budd’s Creek, Md., to Maple Grove [Raceway] and then to Wisconsin all in a week’s time, then turn around and go back home, rebuild everything, and do it again,” she said.

Invariably, his constant overbooking led to many a late arrival at a track, with the ramp truck pulling into the pits just in time to unload and run — if he even got that far.

Pat Foster and "Jungle Pam"

The late, great Pat Foster shared a funny story about “Jungle” and a match race against the Vega at Atco Raceway in 1972.

“We were supposed to race ‘Jungle’ in a match-race deal. First round went down at 8 p.m. sharp! Well, its 7:45 and still no ‘Jungle’ (hard to believe, huh?). The track lines up some local leaker and says to me, ‘Run this bozo, and maybe he'll show by the second round.’ We pull up, and I'm dressed and just getting in, everyone in the joint stands up and begins chanting, ‘JUNGLE! JUNGLE! JUNGLE!’ All eyes are on the highway that goes by the track.

“The starter starts yelling at my guys, ‘Get him in the car! Get him in the car!’ I look where everybody is looking, and here comes ‘Jungle,’ strapped in, motor lit and sending flames above the roof, driving that bitch from where they unloaded it out by the highway, past the gates and the ticket booth, through the parking lot and one end of the pits, right out onto the starting line, and then through the water for a huge, smoky burn out! And the crowd went WILD! I had time for one squeaky little chirp behind the line; they booed us. Then we blaze the tires against ‘Jungle,’ and again the crowd goes INSANE!! Tough gig running ‘the Jungle man’ in his part of the country or anywhere else for that matter; Jim was the king, a hard-ass racer and a great showman!”

I have plenty more on “Jungle” with thoughts from Pam, John Force, and Austin Coil that I’ll save for a later column. This weekend, look for the top-two reveal on the NHRA on FOX coverage from Las Vegas on FOX Sports 1.

The top three: ForceFriday, October 21, 2016

Continuing my review of the three cars and drivers remaining in the Top 20 Funny Cars polls, we move from Dale Pulde’s ’77 War Eagle Pontiac to John Force’s ’96 Castrol Firebird. Again, don’t read anything into me putting Pulde and Force in front of “Jungle Jim” Liberman’s ’73 Vega, but Force just happened to be at NHRA HQ in Glendora earlier this week to help sell tickets to the Auto Club NHRA Finals (you can watch the video here), so I took advantage of the situation and steered him into my office after they wrapped to get a few quick thoughts on his car being in the top three.

Force himself, of course, needs little introduction. The winningest driver in NHRA history by far with 146 victories – Frank Manzo is a distant second with 105 – and 16 world championships, he’s one of the biggest stars in the 65-year history of the sport, known to just about anyone who follows drag racing, even on a casual basis. He has built an empire and a dynasty and mentored his three daughters – Ashley, Brittany, and Courtney – into race-winning drivers as well as won championships with team drivers Robert Hight and Tony Pedregon.

The car in question was a star, too. Its performance in the 1996 season set – and 20 years later still holds – numerous single-season class records: most wins, most finals, most No.1 qualifying positions, and largest points margin over second place.

Force and crew chief Austin Coil won 13 of the season’s 19 events and were runner-up at three others. They accumulated 65 round-wins, which broke the then-record of 59 set by Pro Stock champ Darrell Alderman in 1991, and although Force’s record has been bettered three times, those were in seasons with more events, and Force’s season still reigns as the best based on a per-race round-win average. Here’s the math on the top four seasons:

Wins Year Driver Class Events Average
76 2004 Greg Anderson Pro Stock 23 3.30
76 2008 Tony Schumacher Top Fuel 24 3.17
67 2003 Anderson Pro Stock 23 2.91
65 1996 John Force Funny Car 19 3.42

Alderman’s 59-round-win season (now 10th all-time) was accomplished in 18 events, giving him a 3.27 average.

During the season, Force put together three three-race winning streaks (Phoenix-Gainesville-Houston; Memphis-Topeka-Denver; and Seattle-Brainerd-Indy) and was in the season’s first seven finals, of which he won five. He not only won Indy but also doubled up by winning the Big Bud Shootout that weekend.

Force also accumulated 13 No. 1 qualifying positions that season and finished 636 points ahead of the second-place driver, teammate Pedregon. The next-closest margin was Don Prudhomme’s 616-point edge over Shirl Greer to win the 1976 title.

“I get all the credit, but the truth is it was a great team, led by Austin Coil,” said Force, whose accomplishments earned him the prestigious Driver of the Year award. “I don’t know if you’ll ever see those days again when one car is that dominant. The competition now is so much tighter than it was back then.

“We had a good budget, and we were able to test every week; seems like we tested after every race,” he recalled. “And we won a lot; I hate to say it because of the way it sounds, but going to the winner’s circle, it was almost getting boring. I wish I had those days back now.”

I also reached out to Coil, who was able to put the season into better perspective with the reasons behind their incredible success, and there were many beyond the braintrust that already existed with him and Bernie Fedderly calling the shots.

“For starters, at that time, under those set of NHRA rules, that body had very good aerodynamics,” he said. “A lot of our problems we had with NHRA with body rules over the next five years with the Mustang we brought out the next year were in trying to get that body as good aerodynamically as the Firebird was.

“We also had some clutch-control devices that were working real well for us and were the first to use the timing control management on the engine to help us get down the track. There were a few other guys playing with it, but it wasn't common yet.”

In a moment similar to when the cat was let out of the bag on the till-then secretive Kenny Bernstein/Dale Armstrong lock-up clutch in 1986, everyone got an earful a decade later when Force took a solo run. "Jim Brissette was standing on the starting line and turned to me and said, ‘Well, anybody who doesn’t know how to use timing does now,’ " he recalled with a laugh.

The 1996 season also was the first time that John Force Racing had a second driver in Pedregon, as well as a new crew chief for that car in the personage of creative thinker John Medlen and a bright young crewmember named Dickie Venables, who today is setting speed records left and right as tuner for Matt Hagan.

“One of the great moments of that season for us was Indy, and not just because we won the Shootout and the race,” he said. “What I really remember was Sunday, which was my birthday, and I said that all I wanted for my birthday was for our cars to be 1-2 in qualifying, and by golly, that’s how it turned out. [Force was No. 1 with a track record 4.96, Pedregon No. 2 at 4.98.]

“That, obviously, was a great season for us in terms of wins and another championship, but even more, it was what got us organized on how to run a multicar team. We had been scared to death about whether having two cars would be better or worse, but with Medlen added, we found the right mix, and then, of course, when Jimmy [Prock] came along, we found another, and it’s all part of the record books now.”

OK, two down, one to go. Next Friday, we'll take a look at our final top-three candidate, "Jungle Jim," with a look back at what made him so memorable and list-worthy, and I'll share some very interesting comments that both Force and Coil had about him.

The top three: PuldeFriday, October 14, 2016

With the Top 20 Funny Cars list whittled down to just three – “Jungle Jim” Liberman’s '73 Vega, Dale Pulde’s '77 War Eagle Trans Am, and John Force’s '96 Castrol Firebird -- and the top two not to be announced for three weeks (drama-building period, I guess), I have the chance to take a look at the three finalists, beginning with Pulde.

Don’t read anything into me putting Pulde up to bat first; he was just the easiest guy to get ahold of. Force is no doubt in full “game-face” mode and unreachable as he prepares to head for Dallas this weekend (I’ll be right behind him), and, of course, “Jungle” is reachable only through a psychic medium (if you believe in that stuff), but I do plan on reaching out to his first lady, “Jungle Pam” Hardy, for her thoughts.

To be honest, a lot of people – Pulde included – are surprised that the War Eagle is in the final three, but in my mind, his presence is a testimony to the complete package that Pulde and partner Mike Hamby presented. As Insider reader Dave Ferrin opined, it was “the perfect Funny Car in looks, driver, and performance.”

NHRA's Lewis Bloom did this interview with Dale Pulde in May in Topeka, where he was honored as the event's 50 Years of Funny Car dignitary.

I think that, despite the list’s intention to delineate specific cars, people also voted for the drivers, probably in part because many of the drivers who are represented on the list had numerous cars that could have made the list. Why “Jungle’s” ’73 Vega and not the ’75 car that won the Summernationals or the ’70 Camaro that ran 120 dates that season or his early Chevy IIs? Why not Pulde’s wild Buick Regal or any of Force’s Mustangs?

So let’s begin by taking a look at some of Pulde’s career “bonafides.” For starters, I’ve heard and read many times that people think Pulde is the most gifted and natural Funny Car driver the sport has ever seen, which is saying something when you stack him up against guys like Force and Don Prudhomme and countless others. He certainly has the experience, having driven, by his accounting, roughly 70 floppers, from Charlie Wilson’s Camaro in 1968 through the War Eagle nostalgia Funny Car. He earned nine top-10 NHRA finishes (including a career-high third in 1985) and six NHRA national event wins, and with three championships, 20 victories, and 15 runner-ups, he’s still the winningest driver in IHRA history, and he’s a member of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

Of course, not all of these were with the ’77 Trans Am in question, though he did win the 1978 Gatornationals with a very similar car. His next NHRA win after that was with the War Eagle Challenger (perhaps his least attractive car, IMO; sorry, Dale) at the 1980 Winternationals, but that first War Eagle still resonates and no doubt cast favorable light on every one that followed.

Asked to put a finger on the car’s popularity, Pulde notes that the car was one of the few at that time that not only was devoid of corporate backing but also had a catchy name.

Think about it: Prudhomme was already saluting the red, white, and blue colors of the U.S. Army, Billy Meyer’s Camaro was motivated by his father’s SMI company, “240 Gordie” Bonin’s Trans Am was bubbling up green and white, the Blue Max was emblazoned with corporate backing from NAPA Regal Ride Shocks and English Leather, and even the Hawaiian name on Roland Leong’s car was sharing billboard space with Power Gloss and Avanti antennas. Other than holdout old-school rebels like the Chi-Town Hustler and L.A. Hooker and a few others (Eastern Raider, Boston Shaker, et al), if there wasn’t a corporate name on the car, it was probably emblazoned with the owner’s name(s). So the War Eagle stood out, and an eye-catching paint scheme didn’t hurt.

Legendary SoCal paintsmith Bill Carter shot the colors onto those early War Eagles (John Pugh did the paint on the Miller Warrior cars that followed), with every version getting nicer and the Indian/eagle graphic on the hood getting more intricate, first with Pugh and then Glen Weisgerber doing the handiwork.

The choice of the War Eagle name was part plan, part serendipity. Pulde was floating from car to car after leaving the longtime employ of Mickey Thompson at the end of the 1974 season before hooking up with Hamby. “We knew we needed a name like Blue Max or something like that, something catchy,” Pulde remembers. “Mike went to the library one night and came home with a list of possible names. I was watching a cowboy movie when he strolled back in, and the Indian guy in the movie was badass, so we liked War Eagle right away. I called Steve Evans and some track operators and asked what they thought, and they all thought it was catchy. Kenny Youngblood had already done up a rendering for me for one of Joe Mundet’s cars, and we liked those colors, so we used that as our guideline.

“Everything on the car was anodized – and even before we had anodizing, we always had everything polished –and we didn’t rope off our area from the fans and got along with everybody. I wanted a car that would run good, so I told Mike we wouldn’t take it on the road until we could do that and not hurt parts. And we were able to do that. That first year was great. We hurt so few parts that [Joe] Pisano called me after we set the [national speed] record in Martin [Mich., in August, at 245.23 mph] and said, ‘Hey, I thought we were pals,’ because we were burning so few pistons, we weren’t ordering any from him, and he thought we were getting them from someone else. I told him I still had 10 of the spare 20 I had taken on the road. The car ran good – even though it had a little fuel pump and stock stroke, it ran 240s like nothing – and didn’t hurt anything. I think all of that made a difference in people's minds.

“I’m very surprised, humbled, and honored to even be in the top 20, let alone the top three,” Pulde said, then added with a smile, and a nod to Liberman’s famed backup help, “and maybe if Hamby had [been a little better looking] I might have gotten even more votes.”

Bill McLauchlan was one of many who threw their support behind Don Prudhomme’s Army Monza as the No. 1 pick in the list. “That car dominated two seasons of every type of racing, from national events, match races, highly regarded open events, etc.,” he testified. “I grew up at Al Bergler’s shop in Detroit and went to the races all the time. In 1976, Al ran the yellow Motown Shaker Mustang, and it was a pretty good car, but almost every race we went to had Prudhomme and that Monza there, and it became a race for second place for everyone else. No one had to say it; they just knew. Or they had another line: ‘I almost beat Prudhomme.’ That, to me, tells everything. The car looked cool AND was always a tenth better than the field. It was not my favorite of all time, but it was the best and was easily No. 1 to me.

Ted Pappacena

“Being originally from Detroit, the Seaton’s Shaker Corvair, Pete Seaton and Terry Hedrick, was my favorite car. They rented the back corner of Al’s shop and took me to my first Funny Car race at Detroit Dragway on a Tuesday night in 1968 and won the eight-car show. I was an eighth-grader, and it was awesome. The cool thing about this photo is that Terry was racing Dale Pulde in Charlie Wilson’s car. I used to cut through the industrial complex every day on the way home from school to see if anything interesting was at Al’s. One day, Charlie’s car is there, and I see this young guy working on it. I asked Al who the kid was, and he said, ‘Dale Pulde, and he’s the driver!’ Good stuff or what?”

Mark "Hog Wild" Elms, a true-blue Prudhomme fan right down to his  “Snake” tattoos, had the Army Monza No. 1, voting for performance and dominance over all else. “Who ran the first six? Goldstein and the Ramchargers," he explained. "Who ran the first five? Don Prudhomme in the Army Monza. Who ran the first four? Chuck Etchells in Topeka. Too bad Etchells' car wasn't picked in the top 20. Gene Snow dominated ‘70 in the NHRA and the AHRA and was world champion in both. No young voters would know that. Ed McCulloch dominated, first with the Whipple & McCulloch Duster and ‘Cuda and then in '72 with the Revellution Dart. The Ramchargers and Chi-Town Hustler cars were awesome tickets. The Setzer Vega was another short-lived but awesome performer. I believe sincerely that the Blue Max Mustang with Richard Tharp or one of Raymond Beadle's Arrows would have been better picks over the Mustang II.

“Force, ‘Jungle Jim,’ and a pretty car named War Eagle. I never met ’Jungle’ but have met Force and Pulde. Heck, I saw Pulde fight on the starting line at the March Meet. Seen [Tom] McEwen win the March Meet. Wanna talk pretty cars? Tom Hoover's 1973 Satellite, his first Showtime car, was gorgeous. Force gained my respect when he admitted a couple years ago on the air that he changed his burnout and staging routine. He was really ticked off at himself, said that you never, ever change your routine. ‘Jungle Jim’ fans are like a cult. I am sure he was awesome, but he won a national event in '75 and in '76 won the March Meet in his Monza. So as far as I can tell, the War Eagle will be third, and then it will be between Force and ‘Jungle Jim.’ “

Will John Force tower above the pack? Or will Pulde or "Jungle" swing in for the win?
Al Kean, another fervent Insider contributor, had Prudhomme’s ’70 'Cuda – “such a game changer with the big-buck sponsorship,” he notes – as his No. 1, but because it didn't win (it finished sixth and seventh, in the fan and Insider vote, respectively), he now predicts a Force-Liberman-Pulde 1-2-3 finish (and I’ll get into some of his comments in future columns); another Insider regular, Robert Nielsen, who cast his lot with the Mickey Thompson ’69 Mustang and driver Danny Ongais as his No. 1 choice (which finished a disappointing 15/9 among fans/Insiders), also predicts a Force win.

“As much as I like your choice of Prudhomme, Force has dominated the Funny Car class for an extremely long period of time,” Nielsen noted. “It would have been interesting to see a Force vs. Prudhomme match race, but they came from slightly different time periods. When Prudhomme was dominating, he did a majority of the driving and car setup. Force’s biggest asset, that made him a winner, was his ability to attract deep-pocket sponsors (cubic dollars always win) and put a good race team together. I am not sure how well Force would have done without the expertise of Austin Coil, though. Force’s energetic personality makes him a clear crowd favorite wherever he goes, as do his sponsors apparently. I would be very much surprised if he was not the fan vote’s No. 1 pick.”

Are they right about Force? Or will “Jungle’s” cult-like following (Kean’s words) swing him to No. 1? Or will the War Eagle fly above them both? Guess we’ll have to wait a few more weeks to see.

The top threeFriday, October 07, 2016

Last Sunday’s reveal of Don Prudhomme’s '75 Army Monza as the No. 4 Funny Car on the Top 20 fan-vote list whittles our list down to just three entries, with the No. 3 spot scheduled to be revealed Sunday of the NHRA Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas at the end of the month, giving us ample time to scrutinize the revelations so far.

For those of you keeping score, here are the three finalists, in date order:
“Jungle Jim” Liberman Vega (1973)
Dale Pulde War Eagle Trans Am (1977)
John Force Castrol Firebird (1995)

And here’s the comparison between the fan vote and the vote from the Insider Nation.

Car Fan vote Insider vote
Don Prudhomme '75 Army Monza 4 3
Raymond Beadle Blue Max ’75 Mustang II 5 5
Don Prudhomme Hot Wheels '70 Barracuda 6 7
Don Nicholson Eliminator '66 Comet 7 4
Chi-Town Hustler '69 Dodge Charger 8 2
Kenny Bernstein "Batmobile" Budweiser King '87 Buick 9 11
Jack Beckman Infinite Hero '15 Dodge Charger 10 20
Jim Dunn/Dunn & Reath '72 Barracuda 11 13
Ramchargers '70 Dodge Challenger 12 12
Pat Foster/Barry Setzer '72 Vega 13 8
Ed McCulloch Revellution '72 Demon 14 16
Danny Ongais/Mickey Thompson '69 Mustang 15 9
Kenny Bernstein Bud King '84 Tempo 16 14
Don Prudhomme Pepsi Challenger '82 Trans Am 17 19
Jim White/Hawaiian Punch '91 Dodge 18 18
Gene Snow Rambunctious '70 Challenger 19 15
Jack Chrisman '67 Comet 20 17

I’ll save you the list-to-list comparison (because I know you would have done it yourself) and note that the three unfilled Insider votes are the No. 1, No. 6, and No. 10 spots; in other words, only one of the fan-vote top three cracked your top three. Otherwise, there was a pretty good cross consensus of which cars belonged in the top 10.

Insider readers would rather have had the Mickey Thompson Mustang and Barry Setzer Vega in the top half of the field instead of Kenny Bernstein's "Batmobile" or Jack Beckman's Infinite Hero Dodge, but other than that, a lot of the sentiments are similar.

In the interest of full disclosure, the Army Monza was my No. 1 pick, so I was a bit disheartened to see it not even make the top two on either list. As a teenage pit rat, I saw this car in all of its dominating glory, and the numbers that it put up were astounding. Everyone knows the basics – 13 wins in 16 national events and two championships over the 1975-76 seasons – but those are just the headlines.

I wrote an article on the car’s dominating 1976 season for last year’s Readers Choice issue of NHRA National Dragster, and I scoured every 1976 issue to fill in all of the other nuances of its domination.

Prudhomme won the first five races of the 1976 season and reached the final round of the sixth, the U.S. Nationals, where he was upset by Gary Burgin, ending a run of 30 straight round-wins that stretched back to his victories at the final two events of 1975. Prudhomme recovered from that tough loss to again win the final two events of the season and finished with a stunning 30-1 national event win-loss record and his second of four straight championships.

He set low e.t. at all eight events in 1976, qualified No. 1 seven of eight times – Burgin stopped him from perfection there as well – had top speed of the meet six times, and reset the national e.t. record twice. Prudhomme also won three divisional events, which at the time were part of the points-scoring equation.

He won at match races from California to Pennsylvania and everywhere between, including Orange County Int’l Raceway’s prestigious Manufacturers Cup, York U.S. 30’s Super Stock Nationals, the Popular Hot Rodding Championships, the World Series of Drag Racing, and a score of other lesser meets. Counting match races, he set new track records at 19 facilities.

Yeah, that’s why he got my vote.

With a few weeks until the top-two reveal in Vegas, I’ll take a look at the top three and would most certainly love to read your input on each. What made these cars so memorable? Was it the driver? The win record? The look? Why are these three at the top of the list?

I’d also welcome any impressions of the rest of the list, either collectively or individually as it pertains to the rankings.

If you’re going to be in Las Vegas around the national event or planning to attend the SEMA Show, you for sure won’t want to miss the NHRA Breakfast there Wednesday morning, which will feature a panel discussion that includes Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, John Force, Del Worsham, and “Jungle Pam” Hardy. You can read more about that event here.

I’ll see you next week.

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