For a team and a stable of cars that only existed for seven years, the love that’s being bestowed on the Keeling & Clayton California Chargers is pretty impressive; I wish John Keeling were still with us to share the glory with Jerry Clayton.
The sheer outpouring of admiration for the show-quality nature of their cars is evident in that everyone seems to have a collection of photos of the various California Chargers, including veteran drag racing photographer Dave Milcarek, who sent the images in the gallery at right as a bonus in response to a photo request from a reader that I’ll talk about in a bit.
In addition to nice photos of the rear-engine dragster – I really dig the ground-level shot, which is the third in the sequence -- Milcarek has great shots of the popular Mustang Funny Car that followed the initial Pinto and preceded the Trans Am. Milcarek has been shooting drag racing since 1975. You can check out his website here.
Milcarek’s name entered the conversation after “loyal reader” (I love that!) John Murnan II asked if I could get Milcarek to share photos that he took of the K&C Mustang “when they had what looked like gold all over the motor (and probably other places on the car). I have always wondered if it really was gold, and if so, why they did it (other than to make the car look fantastic, of course). Maybe you could get that info from Mr. Clayton on the whole gold thing on that car (and others of theirs as well?). That might make for some interesting reading, too. Absolutely one of the most gorgeous race cars ever.”
I asked Clayton about the blower, which opened the door for him to address some of the other questions that he has seen here as he has followed along with the last two columns.
“The gold blower was made out of 14-karat gold alloy because the more pure 24-karat gold was too soft to maintain shape when it got hot under high boost pressure. Also, most of the shiny parts on the cars were polished magnesium -- a lot lighter than aluminum -- and took a lot of rag work (even inside of rear wheels), and I believe that the polished blower was coated with maybe Dow 19, which gave it the gold color. Magnesium was routinely coated (aerodited, similar to aluminum anodizing) to control corrosion/oxidation, and if you polished the material first, it would then be shiny.”
He also noted that the linen napkins that Pat Green referenced as high-dollar rags thanks to the airline connection that Keeling and Clayton shared were actually clothes with jeweler’s rouge compound for polishing the blower.
Regarding questions on the whereabouts of the Pinto, Clayton said, “Don Long had made an SFI Spec-approved Funny Car roll cage for a customer in Hawaii, and when we decided to go to the Mustang body to get rid of the aero problems of the Pinto, we cut the frame off just forward of the motor plate and sold the front frame and Pinto body along with interior aluminum to the customer in Hawaii. I don't know who it was, but maybe Don Long knows who/where it’s all at. At that time, NHRA had just changed the chassis rules to allow solid suspended front ends on Funny Cars. We extended the frame [forward] the distance to the nose of the body and mounted our fuel and dry sump tanks up there for better weight toward the front. The axle (still a tube axle) ran across the car behind the tanks -- you can see some of that in those pics.
“The Mustang was sold to some Canadian racers (they liked to come down and buy used stuff to beat extremely high import fees/taxes); however, I was on a layover in Santa Barbara a couple years later and saw it sitting outside on the corner of a gas station, so maybe someone from around there might remember it.
“A note about the national record: It used to be that a record had to be set at a regional points race within a time constraint of maybe one hour or the two final runs at the U.S. Nationals (winner or runner-up). The NHRA tracks on the West Coast were marginal for being able to put down two runs to qualify for a record in the time period; even if you could do the time, you had to get back through the lanes in time to run again, and there were always lots of fuelers in line. We were able to do it at Fremont (sea level), and we had installed a Jim Davis Funny Car-type starter on our car and were able to go through a lane set aside for record-backup runs down by the Stockers, etc. The 6.21 record that Don Garlits set at Indy was thrown out because he had 4 inches of offset in his front end/wheelbase, but instead of leaving us as the record holders, NHRA set a standard of (I think) 6.20 or so.”
On a lighter note, Steve Reyes noticed my inclusion of Tom Ferraro on the list of Funny Car shoes employed by Keeling & Clayton and sent this vintage gem of the K&C Pinto and Ferraro “screwing around” after a magazine photo shoot of the Pinto at a SoCal Jack in the Box restaurant (as an aside, I can’t tell you how many late-night Jack in the Box tacos and onion rings my friends and I devoured after an evening of cruising). Believe it or not, kids, that’s what Jack used to look like before the 21st century marketing suits prettied him (and the restaurants, for that matter) up. Oh, the horror …
Last week, I mentioned that before the historic side-by-side 6.41s run by Rick Ramsey in the California Charger slingshot and Don Prudhomme in the Hot Wheels wedge in the semifinals of the 1971 PDA event at Orange County Int’l Raceway, Gerry Glenn had run two 6.41s himself at Lions a month earlier. Reader Mark Wallace remembers it well. “I believe he broke John Mulligan's long-standing e.t. mark and ran back-to-back .41s to take the win. He was on the cover of Drag News along with myself and two other buddies. Probably the best photo we ever got in, right in the middle, front page of Drag News. I would love to get a copy of that photo. Any suggestions on how? I actually believe we are standing next to Gerry's wife; she was ‘really hot,’ especially when you’re 17 years old. Man, those were the good old days of drag racing: 32-car shows, quarter-mile track, good-looking girls. Awesome.”
I wasn’t able to find the photo in question in our files but did find these two, one of which shows the awesome Schultz & Glenn dragster en route to beating Ramsey in the PDA final, 6.50 to a blower-eating 6.72, and a winner’s circle photo that doesn’t show Wallace or Glenn’s wife but does showcase Linda Vaughn and fellow Hurstette Nikki Phillips. With Glenn, receiving congratulations from PDA promoter Doug Kruse, are Funny Car winner Gene Conway at right and famed Combo winner Don Enriquez at left with Miss PDA Vicki Holloway. Enriquez made some history of his own that night in his Gene Adams-tuned Jr. Fueler, becoming the first of the breed to run in the sixes with passes of 6.98 and 6.99. Interested guests included Chuck “the Rifleman” Connors, who was the grand marshal, and Brandon Cruz, Eddie in the then-popular TV show The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
. Now you know.
While – as noted last week -- the reconstruction of the California Charger is under way at Long’s shop, someone already has done the job, at least in small scale. I received links and photos from two readers -- David Ryberg and Kevin Bye – raving about the amazing job that Missouri model maker Bill Davis did in re-creating the classic digger in plastic. Clayton had his hand in this one, too, providing many reference photos to Davis, who nailed it, as you can see in the gallery at right.
“The results are pretty spectacular,” commented Bye. “I don't think I have ever seen so many machined parts on a model in my life! Certainly beyond my level of skill and patience!!!! Apparently, he has won a few awards already, and I think there might be a magazine feature.”
According to posts by Davis on a modeling message board, the project took him a year to complete, and as you can see, the result is stunning, from the detailed cockpit to the intricate paint scheme and everything between.
All right, my friends, that’s it for another trip down Memory Lane. I’ll be back next week with another installment. Thanks, as always, for contributing.
As if I really had any doubt, feedback after last Friday’s column about the Keeling & Clayton California Chargers was pretty huge and cemented my belief that they had one of the West Coast’s most popular teams in the 1970s.
To illustrate as we go along, here's a little eye candy: Larry Solger was kind enough to pass along a handful of photos he took, of both the front-engine Top Fueler and the Pinto Funny Car, for the gallery at right.
J.R. Ybarra, another “left coast” regular, asked about the exclusion of Billy Meyer from the driving roster for the Keeling & Clayton team. “I believe Billy Meyer had a very short time with the team as I recall seeing him pilot their Mustang at OCIR and was wondering if you could confirm that,” he asked. Meyer did drive the car for a few months in 1975, a year in which he actually drove three cars — Gene Snow's Vega (while Snow was recovering from back surgery), the K&C car, and the Plueger and Gyger Mustang — while he was working with Hal Needham on a land-speed rocket car. His contract forbade him from owning another team but apparently had a loophole big enough to drive a Funny Car through that let him keep driving for other people. He drove for Snow early in the year, then for Keeling and Clayton, then for Plueger.
Former Dragster editor Bill Holland took note of the photo of Ramsey and the “trophy queen” in the winner’s circle at the 1970 Supernationals. According to Holland, the lady’s name is Sharon Harvey, and her claim to fame at the time was being Miss Tanya, representing a then-popular suntan lotion.
“Yours truly put the deal together to get Sharon the gig at Ontario. Back then, NHRA used to have ‘trophy queens’ at all the national events, and the late Bob Russo [then the PR director for NHRA] was not noted for picking too many attractive gals,” recalled Holland. “I had a lady friend at the agency for Tanya, got Wally to consider the cross-promotion, and it proved to be a win-win deal. Sharon was an absolute sweetheart. She took the task very seriously and was as pleasant with the winner of Stock eliminator [Marv Ripes] as she was with Rick. In fact, she liked NHRA and the racers so much that she later came to the Division 7 banquet of her own volition. So now you have the proverbial 'rest of the story. ' "
Regarding the dual 6.41s record by Rick Ramsey in the K&C car at Don Prudhomme at the Orange County Int’l Raceway PDA meet in late July, I heard from Mickey Bryant, who with Todd Hutcheson penned an authoritative history on the period in Don Garlits R.E.D., their two-book tale of Don Garlits’ first rear-engine dragster, which in 1971 appeared to have changed the face of the class and seemed poised for world domination.
But, according to them, Drag News also reported that Gerry Glenn had run not one but two 6.41s a month earlier at Lions Drag Strip, leading them to note, “So now we have three guys, in a span of two weeks, running identical fastest-ever times of 6.41 seconds, one of them in a rear-engine machine — and not one of them named Garlits.”
Interestingly, the same weekend (June 25-26) that Glenn ran his 6.41s, Ramsey and the K&C team were at Fremont, where they set the record at 6.51. Garlits, of course, would have the last laugh (as usual) when he ripped off a 6.21 later that year at Indy (not backed up for the record) and a few weeks later broke Ramsey's record with a 6.26 in Gaineville.
Don Hirsch, who calls himself my “fellow Irwindale pit rat,” pointed out something that I meant to but forgot to include in the article, which was a photo of the team’s very unique tool, a prosthetic leg — complete with a tennis shoe — that was wedged into the cockpit to hold the clutch pedal in when the team was towing or pushing the car through the pits. Hirsch spotted it propped against the back of the car in the photo of John Keeling. (T.J. Sitek also saw it but was a little more concerned: “What in the hell is a dismembered right leg with sock and shoe doing by the push bar alongside the Keeling & Clayton digger?") It was in fact a real prosthetic leg that once belonged to Chuck Johnson, a double-amputee Vietnam vet who owned the California Charger with Keeling before Clayton bought his share. When he got a new set of legs, he donated this one to the team.
In our interview last weekend, Clayton recalled how he and Keeling were able to take advantage of their jobs in the airline industry to get their hands on some new tech, but Pat “Ma” Green also remembered that “K&C were the only crew in drag racing using linen napkins for wipe rags!”
On a quick side note, when I called Clayton back this week for some of the answers above, he wanted to express how impressed he is with Don Schumacher's milestone 200th team win. "I've never met him and actually probably wasn't much of a fan, but I'm impressed with how long he's been doing this and kept it going and kept winning. That takes a lot of dedication," he said. "To be able to continue getting the funding takes as much dedication as the guy who wants to go racing but hasn't got the money. I can't imagine the number of people he has to have working with him to get that all done."
In what’s a bit of a mini-Where Are They Now? segment, Clive Banks dropped me a line and a link to a photo gallery of European cars that shows that the final California Charger, the Trans Am Funny Car, ended up in Europe as a Top Alcohol Funny Car for Steiner Stolen in the late 1970s early 1980s. This photo was taken by Steve Hope at Santa Pod. This is also the car that current Mello Yello star Cruz Pedregon re-created for the Nostalgia Funny Car ranks.
Wes Verinder wants to know if anyone has seen or knows what happened to the Pinto Funny Car. “Did it survive the journey through time in someone's barn or warehouse?” he asked. “I would love to make a bracket car out of it if I had the $$$$ to do the conversion.”
And, of course, everyone wants to know about the famous slingshot. “It truly was one of the most beautiful team cars ever built,” wrote Tim Fink. “Whatever became of it? So many rumors that it’s somewhere in the Northwest waiting for someone to pay an enormous amount of dollars to have it restored. Any ideas?”
Well, Tim, as a matter of fact, yes, we do know.
Don Long and John Rasmussen drove the chassis back to Don's shop from Brent Cannon's place in Wrightwood, Calif.
I got a great note and the photos at right from Paul Katata, a fabricator who has been working lately with Don Long (who built the California Chargers as well as the Steve Carbone dragster mentioned in my previous column) and helping to restore the famous front-engine California Charger car for current owner Brent Cannon as well as the Carbone car, which is the dragster involved in the infamous 1971 Nationals burndown with Garlits.
“Somewhere in the past, the car was converted to run as a bracket/Comp eliminator racer, although I'm not sure it ever actually ran in that configuration,” he wrote. “We moved the rear-end housing, changed the engine mounts back to an early Hemi, and replaced some of the original tubing and brackets. The car was otherwise mostly original. In fact, before we hung the chassis up in the rafters of Don's shop, we took careful measurements and documented everything we could to help on our next project. And that would be a re-creation of the previously mentioned car of Steve Carbone. The cars were close enough in order of leaving Don's shop back in the day that there are only a few differences. Of note are quick-release pins holding the engine in and a tilt back rear-end housing for maintenance purposes on Steve's car.
"Right now, there isn't a definite completion date for the California Charger. Work on the chassis is pretty much done. The body is still up at Brent's place and I'm told is mostly complete but is in need of a little work and, of course, paint and graphics. One thing worth noting: Most (if not all) of the aluminum parts on the chassis were not just polished but chrome plated, even the fuel tank and motor plate! I wasn't aware of this until Don and I began working on the car."
Thanks for all of the great info and pics everyone! See you next week.
You probably can’t call yourself a true fan of Top Fuel’s history if you don’t still salivate over the beautiful Keeling & Clayton Top Fuelers of the early 1970s. The original slingshot and the later rear-engine car were rolling works of art; with their classic blue-on-blue paint scheme, sparkling chrome, and crisp bodywork, they were everything that a Top Fueler ought to be.
A lot of people are familiar with the basic history of the team, which was fielded by John Keeling and Jerry Clayton. Driver Rick Ramsey brought them their first fame when he won the 1970 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway in the slingshot, and John Stewart put the rear-engine car into the Cragar Five-Second Club two years later at OMS. The team later transitioned into Funny Cars that ran hard and looked good until the team disbanded in 1977.
And now, the story behind the story, as related to me by Clayton for a story I did on the car recently on NationalDragster.net that deserved more room than I had there.
Despite the California Charger name they eventually adopted when they moved to the Golden State, Keeling and Clayton both hailed from Illinois, where they first met in the early 1960s. They wouldn’t partner for another decade after both fortuitously moved west to follow their jobs, which both were in the airline industry. Clayton was a ground mechanic at Chicago’s O’Hare airport for United Airlines (maintaining all of the equipment except the planes) in 1961 when he first met Keeling, who was working on a car at the shop of magneto maestro Len Hughes and hung out at the same Sunoco gas station around the corner from Clayton’s apartment. Not long after that, Keeling also took a job at O’Hare as a ground mechanic, working for TWA.
The first California Charger was this car, with John Keeling, Chuck Johnson, and Leonard Van Louven, with driver Norm Wilcox. The extravagant rear bodywork and magnificent paint job came later. (Tom West photo)
Thanks to their jobs in the airline industry, both got to visit California and became tight with Leonard Van Louven, who worked for Isky and later Donovan, but the duo never got a chance to team up on a race car because Clayton got drafted into the army, so Keeling became partners with Dale Lepke on a car named The Intruder. After Clayton got out of the service, because he was too late to be involved with Keeling, he took up flying as a hobby while renting a room from Keeling’s mother, where all three lived together. Although he was qualified to fly, United wouldn’t give Clayton that chance in his current position, so he quit his maintenance job in September of 1968 — giving up nine years of seniority — and got himself rehired with the airline and got enrolled in the net new-pilot’s class.
While Clayton was earning his wings in Washington, D.C., Keeling got transferred to Los Angeles (LAX), where he built the first California Charger with Chuck Johnson, a Vietnam vet who had lost both legs below the knee. Norm Wilcox was their driver.
Fortuitously, Clayton also got transferred to L.A. in late 1969, just as Johnson had decided to get married and get out of racing. Clayton bought his half of the team for $2,000 just after the 1970 March Meet. Wilcox left soon thereafter to continue driving in Top Gas for Steve Levy, and 1969 world champ Steve Carbone, who was between rides between leaving Larry Huff’s Soapy Sales team and waiting for his new car to come out of Woody Gilmore’s shop, took over the wheel. Carbone drove for a few races but, more importantly, introduced the duo to Ramsey, “a long-haired, beach hippy-type who was afraid to meet me until after he had his hair cut,” Clayton remembered fondly. “At the time, as a low-seniority pilot on probation, my hair wasn't very long.”
Keeling, left, stands with the car at Ontario Motor Speedway; this shot and the one below shows off the car's distinctive rear bodywork.
Rick Ramsey (below) drove the beautiful car to its only national event win at the 1971 Supernationals (above), where he defeated Gerry Glenn in the final. A large version of this photo hung for years in the executive conference room at NHRA's headquarters in North Hollywood, Calif.
The front-engine car already had set the bar high on looks with a custom injector scoop and swoopy bodywork by Ken Ellis that ended with a hidden parachute pack, but Clayton’s rapidly rising pilot’s salary brought an infusion of cash that allowed them to start adding even more chromed parts and a beautiful nose by master metalsmith Tom Hanna. George Cerny repainted the car into its now familiar colors; Nat Quick was supposed to do the lettering but couldn’t make it (“guess the long-haired guys were all afraid of me,” Clayton quipped), so Kenny Youngblood, who was just beginning to make a name for himself, stepped in and did a great job.
The dragster won Best Appearing Car honors at the 1970 Supernationals and went on to win the event at which, ironically, they weren’t initially eligible to compete. Because Ramsey was new to the team, he didn’t have enough points to be invited to the Supernationals, but when one East Coast racer couldn’t make it, Division 7 Director Bernie Partridge went looking for a local substitute but insisted on a full-bodied car as opposed to a short-bodied, open-chassis “rail job.” The California Charger fit that bill nicely. They qualified on just one pass and went on to win the race, besting Gerry Glenn in the final.
The team was runner-up to Don Garlits early the next year at the March Meet and at the PDA (Professional Dragster Association) event at Orange County Int’l Raceway, where they famously defeated Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, who was driving his Hot Wheels wedge, on a holeshot in the semifinals in which both ran a 6.41 in what then was the quickest side-by-side race in Top Fuel history. Ramsey set the national record in the car in June of that year, running a 6.51 in Fremont, Calif., to better the 6.53 established the previous October by Tom Raley. The mark stood until Garlits bettered it in September.
“Ramsey would let people leave on him because about a third of the people we raced would red-light against us, so we could take it easy on that round,” Clayton recalled. “We didn’t rebuild the engine every round like they do now, and with a 32-car field, you needed one free round to get through it.”
Their success at the Supernationals brought in additional funding — primarily from the Lee Eliminators group — and allowed them to also field a Funny Car, a Pinto that Ramsey also drove, though they had to share their one engine between both cars, which hindered Ramsey’s success in the Pinto. “We were trying to put the power we made in the dragster to the ground in the Funny, and it wasn't going so well,” Clayton acknowledged.
A number of drivers followed Ramsey into the cockpit of the team’s Funny Cars, including Tom Ferarro, Dale Pulde (who filled in after the late Mike Snively, who had agreed to drive the car for the team but was a no-show for their first race; they later found out that he had committed suicide), Jake Johnston, Pat Foster, and, finally, Neil Leffler, who drove the team’s last car, a ’77 Trans Am that Cruz Pedregon recently re-created as a Nostalgia Funny Car. Like the dragsters, the Funny Cars were rolling showpieces, all painted in the familiar light-blue/dark-blue scheme.
Jake Johnston, second from left, drove the Keeling & Clayton machine to victory at the 1973 Professional Dragster Association meet at OCIR and received congratulations from the PDA's Doug Kruse. Keeling is far left; Clayton is second from right.
In the meantime, Keeling & Clayton had joined the rest of the Top Fuel crowd in moving to a rear-engine car — another beauty, painted the same and equipped with front-wheel pants. Ramsey initially drove the car before turning it over to Johnston, who drove the dragster to victory at the 1973 PDA event at Orange County Int’l Raceway. That victory, much like their Supernationals title, didn’t come as easy as it sounds. Johnston was doing double duty in both the dragster and the Funny Car but lost in the first round in both.
“Jake was late in the dragster, ran low e.t. of the round, burned a piston, and got beat and went to run the Funny. They had changed the timing to kill off some bottom-end power and didn't get the slip-on wire back on the points, and as the car came to a bouncing stop after the burnout, the wire fell off, and the car lost fire — two cars, lots of pre-race publicity about one driver running two cars, and two first-round losses,” recalled an exasperated Clayton, who then set about trying to get the dragster back in the field via the break rule.
The rules at the time allowed a first-round loser to re-enter competition if a winning car could not continue. According to Clayton, in this case, first choice to fill in went to the car that had been beaten by the now-broken car; the next alternate was the low e.t. loser, which was the Keeling & Clayton car.
“The other car also had hurt their engine but were thrashing to get it patched up for the second round, and they insisted that they would make it,” he remembered. “They wanted to buy one of our older magnetos from us, and they were using it so they could race; I asked for the money for the mag or the mag, and they said they were broke and we could go back in. But by then, I didn't have time to replace the piston, so I went with the old-school fix: short out the plug, put a blank nozzle in that hole, and run it. From then on, Jake ran a perfect race. He left on the guy and won the round, and we went back to the pits to fix the engine — front wheels on tailgate, people so thick around the car we had a hard time getting around them — ran the other three rounds, and won the race.”
John Stewart made the car even more famous by becoming the ninth driver in the Cragar Five-Second Club with a 5.92 clocking at the 1973 Supernationals. Stewart, a teenage sensation from Southern California, got the seat in the car when Ramsey moved on. Stewart had accumulated enough points to attend the 1973 World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, so Keeling and Clayton hired him to drive there, at the Supernationals, and a few other races.
After their Supernationals win, the team also began to field Funny Cars, including this Pinto, which reached for the sky in Irwindale, Calif. (below).
Dwight Hughes, who in a few months would become the 13th member of the Cragar Club in the Berry Bros. car, drove the California Charger at Ontario for a New Year’s Day race in 1974, but the dragster was parked soon after, and the team focused on Funny Cars through 1977, when Keeling and Clayton decided it was time to hang up the wrenches.
Clayton’s piloting workload grew ever more demanding as he flew larger and larger jets, culminating in a Boeing 777, and Keeling got married. The match race scene was beginning to dry up, some dragstrips were closing, and the duo decided it was time to call it a career. The legacy the two left, however, even in their short seven-year time span, won’t soon be forgotten.
Clayton also was proud of the innovations they brought to the sport. “Because we worked for the airlines, we saw a lot of neat technology that we tried to apply to our race cars, whether it was a lightweight part or even a new nut or bolt. The bolt that held our blower pulleys on was a 12-point bolt that no one had seen before. We were just itching for a place to put them on the car. We were exposed to this kind of stuff and had access to the equipment — at least what we could fit and take home in our lunch box,” he added with a laugh.
Keeling died of cancer in the mid-1990s. Clayton, now 71, began building Pro Stock and dirt-track engines, retired from flying in 1997, and remains an Illinois resident and proud of their accomplishments.
“That time was the highlight of my life,” said Clayton. “I’m very humbled that we’re fondly remembered. We were there such a short period of time compared to a lot of guys.”
I originally had intended for today’s column to be about the Keeling & Clayton team – as promised at the end of last week’s column – but in the days since then, I’ve been flooded with requests for more Mickey Thompson info and photos from readers, so the thread lives to fight another day. Pretty soon, we’ll be approaching ramp-truck and wedge-dragster thread length!
Last Friday, I showed what I thought was a pretty cool photo of the Mickey Thompson Mustang with a Top Fuel rear wing sticking out of the roof, but famed Northwest historian “Flyin’ Phil” Elliott one-upped me with this pic, showing wings at both ends! “According to Pat Foster, this configuration was only tried in pre-race testing at Bristol, the week prior to the AHRA Spring Nationals," wrote the other Phil. "The tech officials took one look at the inability for the body to tilt up without taking the front wing off and said, ‘Nope.’ PF said the downforce caused the engine to pull way down, and each test run ended in piston smoke.” Way cool photo!
Steve Ellingson scrutinized one of last week’s photos of this same car (right), and his trained eye offered up questions to which I don’t have answers, but perhaps one or more of you do.
“I'm curious,” he wrote. “How much of that car was fiberglass and how much was steel? The rear view you show has OEM taillights, bumper, what appears to be a separate trunk lid, door handles (???), even the roof medallion and drip rails! The other oddball item is the side reflector on the quarterpanel -- this was a feature of the '68 cars; the '69 cars had side lights mounted lower. Did Mickey have this built, or was it an 'official' FoMoCo mock-up body that he got and altered?”
Fire away, readers!
Longtime regular reader/contributor Robert Nielsen clued me into the amazing video at right, which shows this car in all of its glory. It was shot at the AHRA Spring Nationals in Bristol, and in several scenes, you can see the holes in the hood from which the wing struts protruded in the first photo of this column.
“One of the opening scenes shows the car at the top end slowing down, with the parachute out and dancing all over the racetrack – really an exciting ride! There are also a couple of quick scenes with Mickey Thompson in them. I particularly like the one that is about two minutes into this video where he appears to be very upset with a couple of track officials. He stomps over to one official, who then points him in the direction of another official, where Thompson looks like he unloads some sort of verbal barrage in his direction in typical Thompson style and character.
“The biggest thing that one could probably say about Mickey Thompson was that he was an innovator. It did not matter whether it was with respect to drag racing, land speed racing, Indy car racing, or off-road racing. He left his mark wherever he raced! And sometimes it was a knuckle sandwich if he did not like what you had done or said!”
Speaking of Mickey’s Mustangs, I got a great note from Nostalgia Funny Car shoe Jeff Utterback telling me that he and Richard Stannard (Beach City Chevrolet Corvette) are building a tribute/re-creation of the blue MT/Mach 1.
“We have Danny Thompson, Amos Satterlee, and Danny Ongais onboard with their involvement and approval,” he said. “We have been slowly building the car between life, jobs, and general stuff that gets in the way. The car is going into paint in the next two weeks. (The photo is from a couple of years ago.) The car is not going to be a [NHRA Hot Rod] Heritage [Racing] Series runner, more of a dance partner for the Beach City Corvette, and possibly make runs/appearances like the Winged Express does.”
Not to be outdone, Dino Powell dropped me an email to say that Thompson’s final U.S. Marines Grand Am (right) is being restored. Powell acquired the car from the widow of one of the car’s many later owners and recently sold it to yet another buyer, who will restore it; he’s promised to have that gentleman contact me with details.
“I am just a huge drag race fan who from time to time stumbles across a few famous old cars,” he said. “I recently bought and sold the Don Tuttle-built Arley Langlo Zip Code dragster and am restoring it. I currently have been involved with a Pro Stock Duster and a box truck that has a story beyond belief but is the real deal.” He has promised to share that story with me, too.
The great and generous Steve Reyes passed along another of his wonderful images at right, showing Thompson’s Vega at Lions, photographed – as was the norm at the time -- with a shapely model, in this case Joan Trejo, girlfriend of the car’s driver, Henry Harrison.
“As you can tell by the photo, Ms. Trejo [was well-endowed]. We did lots of color and black and white photos. The magazine’s editor was delighted with the photos, and he ran some cool color photos in the magazine’s huge Funny Car spread. The magazine hit the newsstands, and all hell broke out. It seems that a group of librarians in the Midwest contacted Petersen Publishing to tell them that the magazine is nothing but porn and that they are pulling the magazine out of their libraries. The magazine editor was amused, but the higher-ups were not. So they sent a memo down to Hot Rod and Car Craft stating no women would be featured with any drag or street car in their magazines. Just another fun shoot with Funny Cars.”
And finally, Mark Brenner must be reading my mind, and I hope that the dialogue his query opens will help me down the road. “After seeing the pictures in your article, I thought that it would be great to see an article about Danny Ongais and what he is up to now,” he wrote. “I always thought that his career did a lot to improve the respect that drag racers would receive from the other forms of motorsport. Not many individuals have the ability to win in Top Gas, Top Fuel, Funny Cars, Indy cars, and sports cars (IMSA). I was very impressed when he finished seventh in the 1996 Indy 500 in Scott Brayton’s car with very little practice. He supposedly was 59 years old and was recording some laps at 220 mph. Wow.”
Brenner’s request will dovetail nicely with a story I’ve been contemplating for a few weeks, since the aforementioned Nielsen vehemently challenged my assertion that Roland Leong is Hawaii’s greatest drag racing export. He not only believes that the title belongs to Ongais, but also that current nitro crew chief Todd Okuhara is ahead of Leong on this mythical list.
Without launching (much) into my side of the debate right now, I do admire Ongais’ quarter-mile wheel work (though he became more famous for his driving in other forms of motorsport), but Leong is at the top of my list because of his long, long history as a car owner; the opportunity he gave to many drivers to start, improve, or prolong their careers; his long history of sponsorship work, broken records, and event wins; and his current status as one of the top nitro tuners in the nostalgia ranks.
Here’s Nielsen’s side of the debate: “Ongais had several nicknames, including 'the Silent Hawaiian,' ‘the Flying Hawaiian,’ and 'Danny On the Gas.' These nicknames applied to him no matter what type of race car he was driving! The latter of these nicknames was earned because he never lifted no matter how crossed up and sideways the car he was driving got. He always drove the car on the limit of control because that was how to run fast. This was also in the 1960s when drag race track surfaces were not as well-prepared as the tracks are today with VHT ‘glue.’ Top Fuel and Funny Cars would frequently get crossed up. Lesser drivers would backpedal, but not Ongais, with his right foot always too heavy, and he would simply drive the car back to the center of the lane!”
So let’s hear it from you guys out there! Who is Hawaii’s greatest contribution to drag racing (and only drag racing), and why?
OK, that’s it for another fun week. I’m headed out to Gainesville next week but hope to have another column ready before I hit the friendly skies (ever less friendly, it seems) for the start of my travel season. Thanks, as always, for reading and contributing.