I don’t know where car companies come up with the names for their models. What's a Sephia? A Camry? Heck, for that matter, what's a Camaro, other than one of the most famous car names ever?
In the mid- to late 1960s, animal names were the hot ticket for car makers – Mustang, Beetle, Bronco, Cougar, Cobra, Road Runner, Impala, etc. – and even our aquatic friends were included. There's the famed Plymouth Barracuda, the Corvette Stingray, the rare AMC Marlin (one of which my stepfather owned) and, of course, the Piranha.
Everyone's heard of a piranha, right? The flesh-devouring curse of the Amazon River? A pack of the razor-fanged fishes is said to be able to strip a cow carcass to bones in minutes. To veteran drag race fans of the 1960s, the name evokes one of the wildest machines to traverse the quarter-mile, the AMT Piranha, and I present its story here as part of our wedge discussion because, well, it was kinda wedge shaped.
Although a lot of fans have heard of the AMT Piranha, not a lot realize that it had its roots as a street car. Yeah, go figure. Most people – yours truly included – think of it as a pure racing design, but it was in fact a marketing tool designed to showcase a limited-edition sports coupe being built by the AMT company, known to drag race model builders all over the globe for its long and varied line of 1/24th-scale drag cars.
Now, anyone who knows anything about 1960s automobiles knows that, if nothing else, they were heavy metal. Yet during the early 1960s, Marbon Chemical, a division of Borg-Warner, wanted to promote the expanded use of plastic, especially in automobiles. Remember that back then, even our soda bottles were made of real glass, not plastic, and plastic had a pretty small line of accomplishments.
The first CRV prototype, under construction
The Piranha SCCA sports car racer
Rather than try to weasel its way into the production line of the Big Four's cars – though Pontiac did use the material in the grilles of some of its '66 models -- the company decided to build its own car entirely of plastic (save for the running gear, of course), using a proprietary material called Cycolac, which to that point was being largely used in telephones. The company hired race car engineer Dann Deaver of Centaur Engineering to design a two-seater roadster with a rear-mounted Corvair engine. The car was built around one of Centaur's tubular race car frames and made its first public appearance at an SAE convention in Detroit in early 1965 under the acronym CRV, which stood for Cycolac Research Vehicle.
People loved the prototype, so Marbon commissioned Centaur to build a second one and decided that it should undergo its durability testing in motorsports, specifically on the SCCA circuit. The CRV-II exceeded all expectations and, with veteran driver Dick Carbijal at the wheel, even won its class that year, and its tough body even survived a wreck. After CRV-III was built and destroyed in mandated crash testing, the CRV-IV and V were built in early 1966 and included a coupe roof with gullwing doors. Both were sent overseas to promote the use of plastic at Marbon's foreign production facilities.
But Marbon never wanted to be a car manufacturer; it just wanted to sell plastic to someone who believed in the idea. Enter AMT Corp., whose thing definitely was plastic cars, albeit on a much smaller scale.
AMT purchased the rights from Marbon to build the plastic car and bought its inventory of plastic bodies and fiberglass chassis. It hired noted California customizer Gene Winfield – who had been in the fold since 1962 helping design model cars -- to lead a team to design and build plastic sports cars at its new Speed & Custom Division, gave the car a new name -- the Piranha --and decided to promote the venture on the dragstrip.
Fred Smith, a former employee of none other than Don Garlits, was just 24 when he designed and built the chassis, which was wrapped in a body made of two pieces of vacuum-formed 3/16-inch Cycolac. An opening was cut in the nose to duct air through the body and over the cowl to keep the nose down. The car was painted a lemon gold color that blended to bronze farther down its flanks. Despite its dragster-like shape, the car was actually built to compete in Funny Car.
According to specs on a Piranha website, the bare chromoly frame was rigid to improve handling yet said to weigh just 68 pounds and featured a tubular front axle suspended by a transverse torsion bar. The Piranha had a 120-inch wheelbase, was 148 inches from snout to tail, and stood less than 40 inches high. Thanks to extensive use of aluminum and magnesium where plastic was not practical (mounts, pedals, fuel tank, etc.), the car weighed just 1,550 pounds race-ready.
Future Top Gas star Walt Stevens and wrench Joe Anahory, of Dead End Kids fame, got the call to campaign the wild machine. Anahory built a .030-over 392 Chrysler that was installed, mounted at eight degrees down – again to improve handling – topped by a 6-71 blower, and mated to a Schiefer dual-disc clutch and connected to a 1960 Olds rear end through a special Donovan coupler that allowed the engine to be as close to the rear end as possible.
In its debut at Southern California's Irwindale Raceway, Stevens shoed the car to an 8.81 at 182.64 mph, a speed that was claimed as "the fastest for any full-bodied vehicle," though one could argue the "full-bodied" part.
The team ran a full match race schedule, with multiple dates each week from May through September, and commanded top dollar to match race local stars or just make exhibition passes. And what’s not to like? The car made low-eight-second passes, smoking the tires past half-track, dragster-style. Despite its fleetness, the car handled superbly, thanks to all of the advance planning. “It drove like a Cadillac,” said Stevens. “I never had any problems at all.”
The car regularly ran 8.20s and 8.30s and speeds approaching 190 mph, with a reported best legitimate performance of 8.08 at 193 mph.
Shortly after the car hit the dragstrips, AMT released a 1/25th-scale version of the Piranha, kit No. 910. Winfield, who also had designed cars for the entertainment industry, used his contacts to get the Piranha big-time exposure on the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. According to one report, "the original U.N.C.L.E. car was to be based on a Dodge Charger, but the network had second thoughts about giving them too much free advertising or perhaps cancelling their multimillion-dollar advertising campaign" and decided that a completely new car needed to be used. The car only appeared on a handful of shows in 1967.
In October 1966, after the contract with Stevens and Anahory ended, AMT briefly gave the car to Don Cook and Connie Swingle for an attempt at the first Funny Car run to exceed 200 mph. Although there were reports of a 200-mph pass, according to a story by Dave Wallace Jr., "Stevens remembers Swingle hitting 197 at Lions and believes that to be the car’s top speed ever."
AMT sold the Piranha, and it eventually ended up in the huge Harrah Collection in Reno, Nev., where it was stored for many years before being auctioned in 1986 for $6,500. The car was listed in the auction catalog thusly: "Poor overall condition ... not in running condition ... missing parts."
The car subsequently was resold for $8,000 in 1990 to Rich Riddell – Riddell beat out another interested bidder in Garlits, who had hoped to add it to his impressive Museum of Drag Racing -- who immediately began restoring the car but reportedly lost interest in the project for several years. He worked on it from 2001 until his death in November 2008. Riddell's widow put the car up for sale early the next year, and Garlits was finally able to acquire the car, which should be either finished or nearly finished.
Another great save by "Big Daddy."
What's a Camaro?
Back to my original point, I think this is interesting info regarding the Camaro from a Camaro history site. While Chevy labored on the car, its answer to Ford's extremely popular Mustang, "the car had been called various names by GM and the press, including Nova, Panther, Chaparral, and Wildcat (later used by Buick). It is rumored that Chevy also considered using the letters 'GM' in the name and came up with G-Mini, which evolved into GeMini and finally Gemini. General Motors Headquarters supposedly killed that name because they didn't want the letters 'GM' used in case the car was a failure. Finally, the car was introduced to the press as the Camaro, considered to be a good name because nobody knew what it meant. Chevrolet produced an old French dictionary showing that the word meant 'friend' or 'companion,' but Ford found an alternate meaning in an old Spanish dictionary: "a small, shrimp-like creature.' The automotive press had a good laugh over that and an even bigger one when one journalist found yet another meaning: 'loose bowels.' "
Oh, those wacky journalists. You just can’t trust us to keep a straight face.
OK, that's the story of the Piranha (and some bonus Camaro trivia). Interesting stuff. Thanks for reading.
Welcome to Tuesday, or, as many of you will know it, the first workday of this week. Me, I spent Memorial Day in the office working on this column and National DRAGSTER assignments, trying to get caught up before we launch into a June that will feature national events on four consecutive weekends.
I'm still working on the AMT Piranha piece I promised last week, and there's a lot more to it than I expected, but I hope to have it for you later this week. It's some cool stuff. In the meantime, here are some tidbits to keep you going.
Got a note last Wednesday from Bill Holland on the passing of famed entertainer Art Linkletter, which is of interest to everyone here because the former ND editor's Top Fueler once was sponsored by Linkletter and his Art Linkletter's House Party show.
Holland shared the photo at right, which shows Linkletter, center, his late daughter Diane, and Holland (kneeling by the car). Holland's partner and driver, John Guedel, is in the cockpit. The photo was taken at the 1968 Santa Claus Lane Parade down Hollywood Boulevard.
Guedel's father was the producer of the Linkletter show as well as Groucho Marx's popular You Bet Your Life. George Fenneman, who was Marx's sidekick and announcer, even came out to San Fernando Raceway to watch the car run, according to Holland. Linkletter never saw the car race, although Holland and Guedel did take the car to the studio when it was first painted.
(In a weird twist, as a child, Holland was featured on Linkletter's show – which included the popular segment "Kids Say the Darndest Things" -- in the early 1950s. "I was one of those wise-ass kids on the show," he said. "The first time was around 1951, and I was invited back for a couple more of his shows. Don't you think I was pumped having a limousine show up at school (Grant School in Hollywood) to take us to the then-new CBS Television City?")
The photo below shows the car better. It was taken in Oahu, Hawaii, where Holland and Guedel were match racing Stan Shiroma, who was driving the Top Fueler of German Farias (featured here previously in the F edition of the Misc. Files), at Hawaii Raceway Park. Holland and Guedel won the race and set the track record, which, Holland noted, was a nice feat because such hitters as Beebe & Mulligan and Tom McEwen had raced there.
Reader Kellen Kennedy, reacting to my comments about the aerodynamic devices – more precisely, "augmentation devices" -- attached to Gene Snow's Top Fueler, actually found video from the Diamond P show from the 1986 NHRA Southern Nationals in which Steve Evans explained the magic behind the "tomato cans." You have to fast-forward to 4:20 for that, but before you get there, you can also see footage of Gary Ormsby's Castrol GTX streamliner, also reported on here. You can watch Ormsby battle Don Garlits' Swamp Rat XXX in the first meeting between the two streamliners.
For those of you who don't want to watch the video -- which I believe constitutes probably 0 percent – the theory is that the area between the cans and the headers would create a vacuum and more downforce. They claimed that they worked, but, because they quickly disappeared, I'm guessing that they didn't work well enough for whatever upkeep was necessary. That has probably been the bane of many drag racing innovations: too much effort for too little reward.
In the course of working on articles for National DRAGSTER, I stumbled across a couple of items in old issues that relate to previous postings here about the Buttera/Setzer monocoque car and Sammy Miller's wedge dragster. Both appeared in the Bits From The Pits column. If you're new around here, I have NDADD (National DRAGSTER Attention Deficit Disorder), so the simple task of doing one piece of research for one specific item sends me thumbing through an entire issue looking for cool stuff. Anyway, the first, from July 1972, noted that Dwight Salisbury was chosen by car builder John Buttera to drive the monocoque car. If you remember, Buttera and Louie Teckenoff built the car and had hoped to campaign it themselves but sold it to Setzer when the financial realities of doing such finally hit home.
The item went on to note that "a whole flock of subframe cars" were under construction at Race Car Specialties, including one to be driven by Larry Dixon Sr. as part of the Real Don Steele team. Southern California-based RCS, of course, was the San Fernando Valley workshop of ace chassis builder Frank Huszar. Wonder whatever became of these "subframe" cars.
The Miller note I found talked about that car's construction and offered that the wheelbase was to be 195 inches and, of true interest, that the engine was going to be 58 inches out (from the rear end), which is more like Funny Car territory, which dovetails with what Scott Weney told us about how Miller, a flopper veteran, wanted a familiar setup.
Back to the monocoque car -- thanks to a reader, I was able to contact Teckenoff by e-mail. He said he has a "rather detailed series of photos taken when the car was being built," that the car's initial runs were made at Lions Drag Strip and not Orange County Int’l Raceway, and other interesting tidbits that he asked not be disclosed before he can flesh them out. Rest assured, I'll be back in touch with him.
OK, that's it for today. I'll see ya later this week.
Ho hum. Another week, and still more loose threads from the wedge discussion. Sorry for today's late-week posting and that this will be the week's only entry; the work overload on National DRAGSTER has been smothering with no letup in sight, but I wanted to keep the engine running, so to speak.
I have some follow-up on the Dunn & Kruse "Top Fueler" mentioned here last time after exchanging e-mails with Kruse, and I plan to give him a call.
Below is an interesting photo of the "two cars" on the track. There were not two chassis, but rather this is a clever double exposure by Barry Wiggins, taken at OCIR after the Grand Am event (and after the dragster body was painted).
Kruse had been sharing information on the car with the nostalgia-oriented Standard 1320 newsgroup, and I asked permission to reprint his comments here, which he granted. Some of what he said backs up Jim Dunn's comments but with more detail about the actual construction of the car and its rather rushed-into-service nature.
"This version was not meant to be the ideal streamliner; it made use of 'available material' in the form of the Dunn & Reath car with the Funny Car body removed. Initially, the unit was to be used as a plug to make a mold, then lightweight parts were to be built for a competition body. When it was announced that the Jocko/Garlits streamliner would be at OCIR, a decision was made to finish the mock-up unit and race it. It was a little heavier than preferred, but we were inspired by the drama of TWO streamliners at one event.
"The center body between the wheels is .060 aluminum," he wrote. "The fenders were first shaped from block urethane foam, then covered with three layers of fiberglass, riveted on the overlap. The front and rear active control wings are aluminum. The streamliner body was at the racetrack, on the chassis, and qualified for eliminations 17 days after construction started.
"The whole episode was very exciting," he remarked. "The best thing I learned is that the market for streamlined dragsters is very small."
Reader Robert Flitsch offered up "another fire starter for the dreaded wedge discussion" – his description, not mine – with this photo of a black Top Fueler. I recognized the name on the cockpit – Donnie – as probably being Southwest racer Donnie Souter, which I verified through checking the permanent number on the car (480) against other shots of Souter's car. When I first opened this pic, I thought, "Well, that's the Sammy Miller car," but upon closer examination, it's not the same car. Close, but not quite. Miller's car had an enclosed back end, and this one clearly does not. This car also appears to be longer than the Miller car and has a different nosepiece. The Houston-based Souter clan ran Top Fuelers for about 10 years, from the early 1970s to early 1980s, and I'm guessing this photo was a mid-1970s effort.
I've been inundated with suggestions of other "wedge" cars, some of which probably fit loosely in the category and others that don't. Mike Gayowski suggested Gary Ormsby's streamliner, Gene Snow's mid-1980s Top Fueler, and Joe Amato's wingless Top Fueler. With Ormsby's car – which the team billed as a streamliner – I'm almost more convinced to call it a wedge. Again, to me, a streamliner would have an enclosed front end (which his 1986 car did not, but the next version did to a degree) and an enclosed cockpit, which his did not, though it certainly was part of the bodywork. Amato's car was more precisely a ground-effects car; it was his conventional car minus the wind but with a tunnel under the chassis. I saw it make one run in Houston, and it seemed to run just fine, but to my knowledge, that was the only time that he ran it. Amato did also briefly have a streamliner, but I don't think that's what Mike is referencing. Robert Sutton, son of Hall of Fame starter Larry, asked about Cyril Leon's Top Alcohol Dragster from the 1980s. It's a car that I remember seeing, too, but cannot find in our files.
Snow's car, on the other hand, looked like a modern-day wedge. I found this photo from the 1987 Allstars event in Dallas. He didn't qualify there, but the caption said that this was his existing Gene Gaddy-built dragster with the bodywork added and not a from-scratch car. Looking through Snow's file, his dragster underwent a dizzying array of changes and accoutrements, including cockpit canopies, canard wings, and such. I even remember – but cannot find photos of -- crazy devices attached to the headers to increase downforce.
Combing through older e-mails, I found photos that our old pal Steve Reyes sent that show the restoration of the famed AMT Piranha "Funny Car" that was more a wedge Top Fueler than anything as you can see from the photo here, which Reyes took about a month ago.
I've been a little reluctant to head backward in time with the wedge discussion because a) this disucssion originally centered around early-1970s "true" wedge dragsters and b) I'm not sure what worms will crawl from that can, but after poking around a little and reading up on the history of this car, which ran in 1966 and whose roots came from an actual limited-edition production car made of plastic material and whose street-driven "brother" appeared in the 1960s TV spy show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I think it's definitely worth sharing, which I will do next week.
Until then ...
Thanks to several stats junkies, including Stephen Justice, Chris Stilwell, and Steven Wolfe (who hand-typed reams of info!), Bob Frey is a little closer to closing the loop on his stats treasure hunt.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled Insider programming.
Previously on the DRAGSTER Insider, Steve Reyes had submitted a photo of an unpainted, unlettered, and, best of all for us, unknown wedge running at Orange County Int’l Raceway. He wondered if the Insider Nation might know who it was. It took all of but an hour or so for the first reply to come in, from Brett Nation, which was followed by similar answers from Jeff Courtie, Michael Baker, Don Hirsch, and Glenn Menard, that this was "Fearless Fred" Mooneyham in his father's California Cajun dragster. As soon as I got those e-mails, it sounded right, so I dug into the combined Mooneyham file in the DRAGSTER archives and found this photo of the car, taken at Lions.That's the late Gene Mooneyham at far right.
I was able to track down Mooneyham and share these photos with him and to get his remembrances.
According to Mooneyham, the car was built by Louisiana chassis ace Boogie Scott (the Mooneyhams were originally from the Pelican State, hence the California Cajun name). Fred drove the completed car out to California strapped to the roof of the family's Chrysler station wagon.
"We ran the car for quite awhile and I know it ran 237 mph at Lions; I think we ran 6.30s with it," recalled Mooneyham, who was one of a breed of SoCal teenagers like Jeb Allen and Randy Allison competing in Top Fuel at the time. "We ran the car until we had an incident at Orange County. We threw a rod out of it and, when I pulled the parachute, all of the oil from the engine came through some lightening holes we had in the panels and got into the cockpit and ignited. My dad just decided we weren’t going to run that body anymore. Boogie had already built us some regular body panels, so we just switched the car over."
The body, made of aluminum, was never painted, and eventually came to an inglorious end, cut up for random sheetmetal use as needed.
Above right is another photo of the car, taken by veteran photog Dave Milcarek. who has a ton of great old pics form the 1970s here.
Mark Harmon, one of several people to forward me covers of the Barry Setzer wedge on Drag Racing USA, and Michael Hedworth both noted that we probably needed to mention yet another forgotten wedge Top Fueler, Jim Dunn's one-off hybrid from 1973, shown here in a photo courtesy of the Insider's new BFF, Steve Reyes.
This was back when "Big Jim" was still running his rear-engine Funny Car, which had won the Supernationals the season before – still (and probably forever) the only rear-engine Funny Car to win a Wally – and had his pal, Doug Kruse, fashion a mostly aluminum body to bolt on to the Funny Car chassis to allow the car to compete in Top Fuel as well.
The car only made about a half-dozen laps, at Orange County Int’l Raceway during the AHRA Grand American event in June 1973, then disappeared. I tracked down "Big Jim" as he was on his way to this weekend's event in Topeka to get the scoop on the car.
Dunn was honest and to the point about the reason behind the unusual project.
"[Don] Garlits had just come out with his streamliner [the ill-fated Jocko Johnson-built Wynn's Liner], and he was getting all of the ink," explained Dunn. "We were just trying to take some of the spotlight away from Garlits and wanted to prove we could run as good as him. We qualified, and he didn't."
Here's a photo from our files that shows how Dunn's rear-engined flopper looked with the skin off. Note the traditional Funny Car headers versus the through-the-body headers in the Top Fuel configuration.
(Actually, the Garlits car did qualify – dead last in a 32-car field – and Garlits wasn't even driving it. "Big Daddy" was pretty spooked by the car's ill handling in previous tests and hired journeyman Butch Maas to shoe it at OCIR. They qualified on a shutoff pass but did not run the first round according to Bob Post's book High Performance.)
"Both of my cars ran about the same," recalled Dunn. "The car was too short to be a good Top Fueler – it was only 125 inches [the Wynn's Liner was 175 inches] – and I was more into Funny Cars then. We went two rounds with the dragster and three rounds with the Funny Car, and pretty much all we had to do was change bodies and headers. The dragster body was one piece and fit on the chassis just like a Funny Car. I actually didn’t even expect to win the first round in Top Fuel, but I left on a guy and beat him.
"All that did was make more work for me," he laughed.
According to Dunn, the body, which Kruse built in about two weeks, is hanging in Don Ferguson's shop in Torrance, Calif.
Stephen Justice passed along an interesting note about the Lisa & Rossi doorstop wedge that we've also been discussing. He said that Fred Farndon, who's still out there among 'em, was the original owner of the car before an acrimonious divorce forced him to part with the car.
What follows in an excerpt from a bio that Justice did on Farndon, quoting him. "This car was going to make me famous, but a divorce put a damper on it. This was my second SPE car. Not a well-known fact, but I was the original owner and sold it to Vel’s Parnelli Ford, and Billy Tidwell gained considerable notoriety driving it. Too heavy to e.t., but ran 240 mph!"
Justice also included the photo above, showing Tidwell in the car at speed in Bakersfield, Calif. I dropped a line to Jim Rossi, son of original owner Vince Rossi, for comment but have not heard back from him. SPE, of course, was the Santa Ana, Calif., Speed Products Engineering chassis shop of Roy Fjastad, an alumnus of Scotty Fenn's famed Chassis Research dragster factory.
Newlywed "Flyin' Phil" Elliott (congrats!) sent this rather interesting photo as a follow-up to our discussions on the mid-1960s Re-Entry wedge Top Fueler. This photo of the car, looking familiar yet much different, was taken at a car show, and, although the car is quite recognizable, it obviously has a significantly shorter wheelbase.
"I hadn’t seen it this length in any action shot," said Elliott. "There might have been a minor incident after which the car was stretched. I can’t do much but theorize other than provide this earlier pic."
Given the reports that we've had about the car being involved in an accident, it makes me wonder if this is a before or after photo.
Wow … this just in: Insider reader John Gacioch found video of the Re-Entry car crashing at Indy in 1966 as part of footage put together by Hurst. Go here and forward to the 4:50 mark. It's fast, but you can definitely see the Re-Entry car getting into a world of hurt. Great find, John! Be sure to check out the whole five-part Hurst collection … some great stuff there.
On a totally unrelated and selfish note, I officially enter over-the-hilldom tomorrow, May 22, when I turn 50. I wrote about this topic in depth in last week's ND, counting my successes and blessings, so I won't bore you to tears with that. Plus, I'll be working (from home) covering the Topeka event. Why does NHRA schedule an event on my birthday? Not unexpectedly, my office today was festooned with black balloons, signs ("If you were a car you'd be an antique" and "Your motor is still running but the warranty has expired," etc.), and geriatic gag gifts. I love my fellow staffers. Thanks, guys.
I share a birthday with author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, actor Laurence Olivier, game-show announcer Johnny Olson, entrepreneur T. Boone Pickens Jr., baseball pitcher Tommy John, and actress Naomi Campbell. Heck, I might be the seventh-most famous person born May 22.
Of course, that list omits Japanese animation and film director Hideaki Anno, who was born on the same day I was in 1960, and I see we share a lot of traits. According to Dr. Wikipedia, "His style has come to be defined by the touches of superflatism and postmodernism that he injects into his work, as well as the thorough portrayal of characters' thoughts and emotions, often through unconventional sequences incorporating psychoanalysis and emotional deconstruction of these characters." Yeah, kind of like what I do here. Cool!
The Earth certainly moved for Anno's mother and mine, as well as for the people of Chile, where the Great Chilean Earthquake shook them to the tune of 9.5, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded. So, what else happened on May 22? Well, not much apparently. In 1807, a grand jury indicted former Vice President of the United States Aaron Burr on a charge of treason, and, oh yeah, on May 22, 1992, Johnny Carson hosted The Tonight Show for the last time. Yeah, pretty slim highlights, I know. Again, that puts ol' P.B.'s birth pretty high on the charts, wouldn’t you say? I'm kinda surprised my name's not on either of those lists. Oversight, I guess.
Monday also is kind of a special day because May 24 will mark my 28th anniversary here at NHRA. It has been a swell ride, and I hope it's far from over, but I want to thank you all for making the last three years some of the most enjoyable with your support for and love of this column.