A Case of the GremlinsFriday, May 09, 2014
Posted by: Phil Burgess

“Now that you did the Vega panels how about a retrospective on Gremlins — the ‘other’ sort of panel!”

So came the request from reader Ken Brodsky earlier this week. First off, I have to admit that I have a special place in my heart for AMC cars. My first car was a hand-me-down Javelin from my parents that became the first car I ever drove down the quarter-mile (at Orange County Int’l Raceway) and my first hot-rodding experience. I added a bigger carb and a better manifold, somehow shoe-horned in a set of headers, and had the Torqueflite tranny redone by Art Carr. I learned how to change the points and condenser (kids today are going “Huh?”) and how to bust my knuckles open on stubborn header bolts. I liked having something different and later became an official member of the National American Motors Drivers and Racers Association and flew their colors proudly during many a — ahem — clandestine midnight challenge. When the original 360-cid engine expired, I went out and got a 390-cid AMC engine out of an earlier model and bolted that it into the engine bay and had a real screamer.

So it didn’t take a lot of arm twisting to entertain Brodsky’s suggestion, although I expected it to be a short tale. Let’s face it, the Gremlin wasn’t that popular of a street car (in eight years, just 671,475 Gremlins were sold, an average of just 80,000 a year) and, apparently, an even less popular race car. I thought right away of the only Gremlin Funny Car I knew, Lou Azar’s Funny Gremlin and Wally Booth’s Pro Stocker, and my list kind of ended there.

A quick bit of automotive background: For all of its styling woes, the Gremlin should get credit as the first true U.S. compact car as AMC rushed to beat Ford’s Pinto and Chevy’s Vega to the punch (all trying to counter the popularity of the VW Beetle), but that didn’t stop Time magazine from naming the 1970 Gremlin one of the 50 Worst Cars of All Time a few years ago. The Gremlin essentially was an AMC Hornet with the back end clipped off to give it an overall length of 161.3 inches (just two inches longer than the Beetle).

The truncated finish gave it the Kammback style similar to that of the Vega panel wagon but quite a bit less stylishly so (“one of the most curiously proportioned cars ever, with a long low snout, long front overhang, and a truncated tail, like the tail snapped off a salamander,” opined Pulitzer Prize-winning automotive critic Dan Neil for the Time article).

That didn’t stop either Azar or Booth from taking their Gremlins to the strip, though Azar admitted that his choice of body style was more for its match-race booking uniqueness.

Azar, who was based in Hialeah, Fla., looked high and low and finally a coast away for a Gremlin body before he came across Riviera Plastics in Garden Grove, Calif. Because the factory Gremlin had a wheelbase of just 96 inches, the body had to be stretched two full feet to fit the traditional 120-inch wheelbase of a Funny Car chassis, all of which was added to the hood area. Foy Gilmore built the car for Azar, and with its one-off nature, the car took almost a year to complete, and after Kenny Youngblood applied the Funny Gremlin lettering and stars-and-stripes motif, the car made its first runs in September 1971.

The car was powered by a 430-cid Chrysler Hemi, which Azar jokingly listed as “an experimental American Motors Hemi.” Although never one of the fastest cars out there, Azar did accomplish his goal of having a memorable and desired machine.

(Azar wasn’t the only one who really liked the Gremlin body style; Ed Lenarth, of Jeep Funny Car fame, planned to use one on the wild Mid-Winder sidewinder Funny Car he built, but the car, with Bob Hightower at the controls — and sans body — was heavily damaged in testing at Lions Drag Strip and a follow-up sidewinder dragster crashed at Irwindale Raceway, ending the project.) You can read more about the Mid-Winder in a column I wrote a few years ago here.

Azar eventually sold the car to fellow Floridian Paul Smith, who sold the car to the Virginia-based team of Donnie Plunkett and Frank Meinel, former Top Gas and Top Fuel racers, who ran the car for four years under the Mischief Maker moniker.

According to Plunkett’s son, Timothy, in a story posted on DragList.com about a decade ago, only three Gremlin bodies were made; Azar had two of the bodies and Shirl Greer the other (though Greer's sons do not recall him ever having this body). Similar to the tales of woe of the Kammback-styled Vega wagons, the Gremlin bodies were an aerodynamic liability. “The body was bad about forcing the car to spin around at the end of the track and go through the traps backwards,” he wrote. “The other two bodies were thought to be crashed. Lou wrecked one at Blaney, S.C. It pulled the chute through the blower belt, I assume, after getting flipped around. Shirl Greer told Frankie at 170-180 mph, the cars just started to spin around after the air picked up the back end of the car.”

Plunkett said the team bought the body not because of its uniqueness but because it was available for the right price when they moved away from Top Fuel because his dad did not like the idea of rear-engine dragsters that were becoming the norm due to the fear of the engine “following him” into the guardrail in case of an incident.

Determined to solve the Gremlin’s handling woes, the team designed a low-dollar wind tunnel in its shop using smoke and several squirrel-cage fans. They discovered, to no one’s surprise, that the air was wrapping around the back of the body, so they added a small spill plate near the beltline that was continually lengthened and eventually extended out to more than 20 inches.

“The car had some good runs but never made it that far through the field,” wrote Plunkett. “They usually advanced only one or two rounds, and most advancement in the upper rounds was off others’ misfortunes. They ran the southern NHRA divisional events but only went to the IHRA national events. They never went to the NHRA national events.”

When IHRA trimmed its Funny Car fields from 16 to eight cars in the late 1970s, and with nitro prices climbing and no sponsorships in the works, the car was sold to a fellow Virginia racer, who put a Model T body on the chassis and ran some lower classes. “The body is still thought to be somewhere in Bedford, Va.,” said Plunkett.

The senior Plunkett went on to drive for Elmer and Gwynn Hartsoe in their Chevy-powered Monza Funny Car for a short time, then later went NASCAR Late Model Sportsman car and NASCAR Late Model Stocker in the 1980s and 1990s.

Booth's jump from Chevrolet to AMC was a bit surprising because his big-block Camaro was actually the second-quickest Chevy Pro Stocker of the early 1970s (behind Bill Jenkins), reaching the semifinals of the Gatornationals and the quarterfinals of the 32-car field U.S. Nationals in 1971. After Chrysler’s domination, NHRA created a furor in 1972 by allowing a generous 400-pound weight break for sub-compact Pro Stock cars with wheelbases of less than 100 inches, which allowed the rise of cars like the Vega, Pinto, and, yes, the Gremlin. Booth had, in fact, spent the winter building a small-block Vega before AMC came calling and offered him a factory ride.

Again, the poor aerodynamics of the body were a hindrance, and Booth won just four rounds in 1972 and didn’t run most of the 1973 NHRA season. Booth, the team of Dick Maskin, and Dave Kanners joined Team AMC with a longer and more stable Hornet in early 1973, and Booth followed suit later that year and won the 1974 Gatornationals with his Hornet.

Other drivers to compete in Pro Stock with a Gremlin included Maskin, Bert Straus, Jessie Childree, Dave Gilbert, Jim Johnson, Rich LaMont, Dennis Peck, LeRoy Roeder, and Max Smith.

So as you can see, at least as far as drag racing is concerned, the Gremlins were appropriately named. They never enjoyed a great deal of success and caused a lot of headaches, but at least they were memorable. Next week I'll take a look at some of the other memorable AMCs from quarter-mile history.

Still more Vega panels ...Friday, May 02, 2014
Posted by: Phil Burgess

After last week’s pause to remember some of our fallen friends, we return to the Vega panel thread. There’s not a whole lot of new info to share but some cool photos you guys have sent in, so let’s make this a show and tell.

The Insider’s “photo insider,” legendary lensman Steve Reyes, sent me a huge collection of his stuff on Vega panels.

Here’s a shot of the first Wonder Wagon Vega panel body being worked on at "Lil John" Buttera’s shop. That’s Don Rackemann at right.

A couple of photos from the Wonder Wagon photo shoot at Orange County Int’l Raceway. In the second photo you can see the height difference between the two cars, with the Kelly Brown ride (closest to camera) a low-slung purpose-built chassis by Buttera and the Glenn Way car a taller, older-style chassis necessary because of Way’s taller stature.

Here are two of the other notable Vega panel nitro cars, Bill Rogers’ Travellin' Texan (top) and the short-lived, rear-engine Alabamian of Bill Holt and driver Wayne Mahaffey. Rogers, a former Top Fuel racer out of Corpus Christi, Texas, somehow kept his car out of trouble and ran it for several years. Prior to this car, he ran the Mercury Cougar-bodied Texas Super Cougar and then renamed it Travellin' Texan before moving to the Vega in 1972. After a few years (and a lot of dollars), Rogers swapped his blower for injectors and ran the car as an A/FC, according to Reyes.

Here’s Don Schumacher in what I think must be the ill-fated first pass in the Vega panel at Great Lakes Dragaway after he took over the Wonder Bread deal. The car got way out of shape (some folks even remember it taking an excursion into the grass area lining the track; Schumacher says no) and convinced “The Shoe” that this was not a good fit, after which he returned to his Barracuda bodies.

And here’s the Ohio-based Russell-Cook-Bolender Trick Truck injected fuel Funny Car with Larry Russell at the controls at the 1973 U.S. Nationals.

Texan Clayton Pool has run everything from nitro Funny Car to Alcohol Funny Cars and altereds, Pro Mods, and even a rocket kart, but he also wheeled this injected fuel Vega wagon at Green Valley Race City in 1972. Dig the see-through side windows, a rarity for the body style.

Here’s an incredible photo of Gary Gabelich’s outrageous four-wheel-drive, rear-engine Vega panel, caught in mid-turmoil by another legendary ace shooter, Jere Alhadeff, shortly before its demise at Orange County Int’l Raceway. Alhadeff tells me he didn’t even know the car was going to be running that day or that he would get what’s a pretty rare shot of the car in action. “I just happened to be at OCIR shooting a feature. We were on the return road when I heard them and then saw them fire it up by the starting line. I quickly switched to a longer lens and shot this photo on the test run. When I went over to talk with Gary and crew at that time, they said that they were not going to make another run. After I left, they decided to make another run (which I have always heard was without the body on the monocoque chassis), and that was the run where he went over the guardrail doing himself so much physical damage. Gary told me later on that his leg was so severely damaged they wanted to remove it, but he told them as long as he could stand the pain, he was going to keep it and see if it would heal.”

Bob Snyder passed along the photo of this Vega, shot at the 1978 AHRA Winternationals. Research tells us it’s the car owned by Arizonians Ed and Jack Maroney and driven by Mike Day. Although it looks like a Funny Car, apparently it was campaigned as a Fuel Altered and held the AHRA record holder in 1973 with an 8.26. Reportedly, the body came from the same mold as the Wonder Wagon cars. The lightweight car (1,400 pounds wet) was powered by the 326-cid, small-block Chevy out of Day’s fiat and ran injected on 95 percent nitro.

Rich Hanna dropped me a line to let me know that Bob Hall’s timeless Paddy Wagon Vega Panel wheelstander, which was built in the early 1970s and raced into the mid-2000s, is now owned by Alyson Kurtas, who is the girlfriend of Hanna team jet Funny Car driver Ken Hall. According to Hanna, she hopes to become the first woman licensed in a wheelstander later this year.

With all of the love being doted on Chevy’s little hauler, Darryl Judd (“a dyed-in-the-wool Ford fan") wanted to know if there were any Pinto wagon drag race cars. “I don’t think I ever saw one but maybe a little more research for us lowly Ford fans?” he pleaded.

Your wish is my command, Darryl. We all know that there were a ton of Pinto coupes in Funny Car (Dale Pulde/Mickey Thompson, Al Hanna, the California Charger, Gary Densham, Bill Schifsky/Doc Halladay, etc.) and in Pro Stock (Bob Glidden, Wayne Gapp, Don Nicholson, etc.) but not many panel wagons.

The first car that leaped to mind was Gary Coe’s mid-1970s Gunfighter Pro Stocker from the great Northwest. Coe raced the Pinto wagon from 1974 to 1979, in the Pro Stock class, and  qualified for several NHRA events and was even credited with a round-win against (not yet “The Professor”) Warren Johnson at the 1975 Fallnationals in Seattle, when W.J. was a first-round no-show. Coe lost in round two to Glidden. After more than two decades out of the saddle to build his towing business (and a failed bid for a Senate seat), Coe now competes in Stock eliminator with an AAA/SA Cobra Jet. You can check out his website here.

After Coe, the DragList site lists only Danny O’Day’s wheelstander as a historic Pinto panel. Wonder why the disparity …

I may be wrong, but I think that pretty much wraps up the Vega panel thread. Thanks to all who followed and contributed. We all learned a lot.

Remembering five fallen friendsFriday, April 25, 2014
Posted by: Phil Burgess

I love email and text messages — can’t even begin to think where any of us would be without either in this day and age — but I’m almost to the point where I cringe every time a new email pops into my Inbox or my phone sounds off the arrival of a new text. It’s been a very rough two weeks for fans of drag racing, especially those with long memories or appreciation for those who helped hew this sport from its rough and tumble early image into today’s sleek professional series.

First came word via email April 12 that famed chassis builder Bill Stebbins, who had built cars for the likes of Franks & Funk, Jim & Alison Lee, Jim Bucher, Don Woosley, and others had passed away. Then three days later, we learned of the passing of Gordon Browning, a Los Angeles Police Department officer and early member of the NHRA board of directors. Last weekend, I got a text from Richard Tharp that “Bones” Carroll, of the famed Texas Whips Top Fuel team, had died. Wednesday word came of the passing of nitro legend Kenny Safford, of “Sour Sisters” and Mr. Norm fame, and with it, the news that just a few days before him, one of Safford’s earliest partners, influential Southern California chassis builder Rod Peppmuller, had also died after an infection following surgery to work on his pacemaker.

I didn’t know Stebbins, but I certainly knew of his work, especially as it related to Woosley and partners Bill Sharp and Bill Reynolds and their incredible Ale-8-One dragster that won the 1982 NHRA Top Alcohol Dragster world championship, 10 national event Wallys, and seven Division 3 championships. Woosley was one of the great characters I’ve encountered in my years in the sport, and as good as he was behind the wheel, he was always ready to credit those who helped get him there, which included Stebbins, who had built pipe for the team since Woosley’s first car, the Magic Show A/Fuel dragster, in the early 1970s. (Woosley died a few years ago; here’s a column I wrote about him back then.)

Stebbins, a member of the Kentucky Motorsports Hall of Fame who also was honored by NHRA just two years ago at the National Hot Rod Reunion, claimed more than 25 NHRA and IHRA national event wins for his cars as well as many national record holders in both associations.

Stebbins got his start humbly, selling National Speed Sport News in the stands at circle-track races and had his first dragster by age 20. He partnered early with Tom Severt and founded S&S Engineering, building, among its most memorable cars, the twin-engine Franks & Funk dragster and was at the forefront of rear-engine Top Fuel technology with Jack Hart and Billy Campbell and their Golddigger entry. His chassis also held the Chevy engine that Jim Bucher tuned to his stunning Top Fuel win at the 1975 Summernationals. He later opened a business, Stebbins Aviation, that repaired damaged airplanes.

Browning’s passing may not have reached the radar screens of many, but it was personal to me because I had met him in 2001, when NHRA was celebrating its 50th anniversary. I had just completed a months-long project to create the 50th anniversary website, which includes a painstaking account of NHRA’s earliest days. I had read about Browning in early issues of Hot Rod and had heard of him from Wally Parks, so it was an honor to meet him at a special get-together NHRA hosted at the Tam O’Shanter Inn March 13, 2001, exactly 50 years after NHRA’s official incorporation papers had been signed there.

Browning, an officer of the Los Angeles Police Traffic Education and Youth Safety Division, became a board member in 1952, not long after a chance meeting with Parks, who was on his way to work one day in the early 1950s, cruising crosstown in a fenderless, low-riding '32 Ford coupe, when he ran into a traffic snarl caused by construction.
"Before too long, there was a plume of steam coming from my radiator, and I was looking for any escape route," recalled Parks at that affair. "When I looked in my rear-view mirror, there was a black and white cruiser back there. Just about then, my radiator let go like Mount Vesuvius, so I pulled over onto the shoulder. The officer began walking up to my car, and I thought I was in a lot of trouble. Instead, he took me in his cruiser to the police station to get some water for my car. That started a long and wonderful friendship."

Parks, never one to forget an ardent supporter of his cause, also made sure that Browning was on hand Jan. 29 in downtown L.A. when Mayor Richard Riordan proclaimed it National Hot Rod Association Day in the city of Los Angeles.

Browning also was instrumental in working with Pomona police chief Ralph Parker and Pomona officer Bud Coons to help establish racing at Pomona Raceway and did much of the legal legwork that resulted in the creation of Lions Drag Strip a few years later.

"Bones" Carroll, left, and brother Curt, right, with early partner Murray Oxman.
No one remembers how "Bones" got the nickname, but here's Curt Carroll in the brothers' early A/Gas Ford entry, the Bonesmobile Special, in 1960.
The "Texas Troublemakers," from left, Richard Tharp, Jim Bucher, and Curt and "Bones" Carroll in 1969.
The wild Carroll Bros. & Oxman twin-engine Top Fueler driven by Buddy Cortines.
When the Carrolls switched to Pro Comp in the mid/late-1970s, Ben Griffin was the driver of this injected fuel car and scored a runner-up at the 1978 World Finals.
David Pace drove to two Top Fuel runner-ups, including the 1981 U.S. Nationals. This is the same Tony Casarez-built chassis used by Griffin in Pro Comp.

“Bones” Carroll, 86, whose seldom-used first name was William, and brother Curt fielded cars from their Texas base for years, beginning with an A/FD before moving to Top Fuel. (The origination of the "Bones" nickname is unclear — especially considering that he was a big man — but only his brother, Curt; his wife; and their mother regularly called him "Bill." Curt died of cancer quite a few years ago.)

The brothers, who operated the Irving, Texas-based Carroll Bros. Erection Company, which specialized in structural steel buildings, had an all-star roster of drivers over the years, including Bob Gibson (with whom they won the 1970 NHRA Springnationals), Dave Settles, Buddy Cortines, Richard Tharp, Marshall Love, Kenny Bernstein, Murray Oxman, Ben Griffin, James Ludden, and Gary Bailey, winning a slew of Division 4 championships along the way, but had some of their greatest success in their early 1980s outings with driver David Pace.

Tharp drove for the Carroll brothers in both the 1960s, with their front-engine car, and in 1975, with their rear-engine car. Tharp’s first ride with them was in 1965, a stint that was cut short after he was drafted to serve in Vietnam (leaving the seat open for Kenny Bernstein and leading to the infamous and hilarious Jimmy Nix story I shared in my 2012 column about Tharp) and, after driving for Childs & Albert upon his return, he drove for the Carrolls again in 1969 in a car with which they were partnered with Jim Bucher (not the same Bucher of Chevy Top Fuel fame).

In fact, it was Tharp’s performance in the Carroll car at the 1975 Summernationals, where the car ran 5.97 (the first sub-six-second pass at Raceway Park) to qualify No. 1, that caught the eye of Paul Candies, who was looking for a driver to replace Dave Settles. Candies sought and received permission from Curt Carroll to hire their talented shoe.

Having spent that much time around the brothers — including working for their construction company during the off-season — Tharp had a lot of good memories of their time together.

“When I drove for them in the 1960s, we were just about unbeatable,” he said. “ ‘Bones’ was just a great big funny guy and fun to be around. ‘Bones’ lived in an apartment right across from Love Field, in apartment 123. He called it the 123 Club because a lot of the airline stewardesses on layovers stayed in the building and a lot of times in his apartment. He had a party every night.

“Everybody loved him; he was kind of like Paul Candies. No one ever had anything bad to say about him. Curt, too. They were just good ol’, straight-up, honest-to-goodness country guys. They worked hard and made a lot of money but knew how to have fun.”

Pace was runner-up to Johnny Abbott on a red-light in the final round of the 1981 U.S. Nationals at Indy — where they also became the 11th member of the NHRA 250-mph club — and also runner-up to Jeb Allen at that year’s NHRA Mile-High Nationals in Denver en route to a ninth-place finish in the Top Fuel standings, despite running less than half of that year’s events.

Pace had many fond memories of their time together. “ ‘Bones’ was one of the most unique individuals I’ve ever known, dead serious about his racing and meticulous in race car preparation,” he said. “He hated to hurt his precious engine parts, and I’ve seen him sit for hours, gently massaging wrist pins with oil (he claimed they would absorb the oil) before assembling an engine. I got the ride with the Carrolls when they decided to return to Top Fuel after a four-year hiatus running Pro Comp, and when our first engine was assembled, both Larry Meyer and Ed Cluff tried to tell him why he needed to use a dial indicator and go by the numbers on the card to time the cam. Bones wouldn’t hear of it. He said, ‘Now lookee here, I’ve got me this perfectly flat hunk o’ iron (pronounced ‘arn’) that I lay across the lifters on No. 1. That’s how I’ve always done it, and that’s how I’ll continue to do it.’ I dutifully followed instructions and used his “hunk o’ iron” (a broken keyway broach) without fail when I timed the cam. Right or wrong, it worked, and the car hauled ass.

“ ‘Bones’ was equally well-known for the head games he’d play with the competition and for his storytelling. Many a Dallas-Fort Worth-area racer has accused him of never letting the truth stand in the way of a good story, although there was usually a fair amount of truth, maybe embellished a little, in his performances. Any time he’d roll that cigar from one side of his mouth to the other and say, ‘Now, lookee here … ’ you wanted to grab a chair and hear whatever tale was about to be told. One of my favorites is about a mid-'60s AHRA race where the Carroll Bros., with Richard Tharp driving, ended up in the final against up-and-coming John Wiebe and his Agent car. As the story goes, Bones walked over to Wiebe and said, ‘We’ve got us a problem.’ Wiebe said, ‘What’s that, Bones?’ Bones said, ‘[AHRA President Jim] Tice is in the tower, and I heard that he’s going to red-light us. Don’t know which one of us it’ll be, but just to be sure, what we need to do is both of us just pull in and wait until we see a full green light on before we move. That way he can’t red-light either one of us.’ Well, Tharp left like a rocket on the last amber while Wiebe sat waiting for the green light, and at the other end, he was pretty upset. When he said, ‘Bones, I thought we were gonna wait for the green,’ Bones said, ‘Well … we were, but I guess I must have forgotten to tell Tharp I wasn’t there and can’t vouch for the accuracy of that one, but I’ve heard it directly from ‘Bones’ and from enough other racers over the years that it’s become legend, true or not. [Tharp confirmed the story and said that it happened at Green Valley Race City.]

“ ‘Bones’ loved to hold court during down time or at a restaurant or hotel, and invariably, one of his audience would ask who was the best driver they’d ever had. He’d hem-haw around and never really give a direct answer, always looking to see who was around and listening. Then, someone would ask who was their worst driver. He’d get really uncomfortable with that subject and usually countered with, ‘Well, I won’t say, but lookee here, I’ll tell you this, that there Tharp is your PREEEEEMIER fuel driver.’ If you stayed around long enough and kept him on topic, occasionally you’d get the answer to that second question.”

The team stopped running after the 1982 season, and in 1984, the Carrolls were inducted into the Division 4 NHRA Hall of Fame.

Peppmuller, left, tunes up Ivo's tie before his wedding.

Peppmuller, a member of the famed Burbank Road Kings car club that also included the likes of "TV Tommy" Ivo, Don Prudhomme, Bob Muravez, was partners for a time in a chassis-building business with “Tubular Tommy,” and a number of memorable cars, including Tony Nancy's 22 Jr. gas dragster, the Weekly-Rivero-Fox-Holding Frantic Four (and the subsequent Orange County Metal Processing Special driven by Norm Weekly), Jack Chrisman's 1964 Winternationals-winning Howard Cams Twin Bear, the Dead End Kids car, and the record-setting Croshier-Baltes-Lovato Top Fueler.

It also was Pepmuller’s chassis in which Don “the Snake” Prudhomme made his first Top Fuel passes in 1959, using Prudhomme’s Buick engine and Pepmuller’s car. They took turns driving the car; Prudhomme claims he could always make it run faster.

Peppmuller and Ivo were pretty much inseparable. They went to Burroughs High School together, where Peppmuller was a football star, and the two stayed close afterwards. Peppmuller, 78 at his passing, was the best man at Ivo’s wedding in 1972 and died last Thursday, the day before Ivo’s 78th birthday.

“He was my strong right arm and a little bit of the left one as well,” Ivo told me by email Wednesday. “He kind of was to me what I'm told Fritz Voigt was to Mickey Thompson. He also ran my chassis shop, was partners in the auto-repair business, built the welding part of my trailers. He was my best man and replacement brother, when my real brother passed away.  He was the salt of the earth — especially to put up with I-V-O for so many years!”

(Above) The Sour Sisters car at Lions in 1963. (Below) Safford-Gaide vs. Danny Ongais at Carlsbad Raceway in 1964.
Safford in Ted Gotelli's dragster.
(Above) Safford in the Mr. Norm's Charger in 1969. (Below) Safford drove the car through numerous versions into the late 1970s.

Peppmuller also built the first dragster that Safford drove after he transitioned from street cars and Super Stockers to dragsters after becoming a member of the Road Kings.

“[The Road Kings] raced a lot at the old San Fernando dragstrip, and after watching them a few times, I began racing with my mom’s ’56 Ford coupe that had a 312-cid engine,” he told National Dragster in 2007.” I then got my own ’57 Chevy with a 301-cid engine and became a member of the Road Runners, and I was runner-up to Shirley Shahan in the Super Stock final at the first Bakersfield March Meet in 1959.”

Safford teamed with Peppmuller and fellow club member Don Gaide; Peppmuller built the car and Safford the engine. Safford traded his prized ’57 Chevy for a ‘59 El Camino tow vehicle. When the engine expired after a half-dozen races, Safford and Gaide joined forces with Don Ratican of the Ratican-Jackson-Stearns team, which was breaking up, and the powerful Olds engine from the R-J-S Fiat went into a dragster for 1962.

The Safford-Ratican-Gaide won 17 out of the first 22 Top Fuel races it attended but also was hard on parts. “We were winning enough races for the car to support itself, but we were constantly breaking engines because the Olds block wasn’t strong enough,” remembered Safford. “We went through 22 blocks in one year.”

Enter the always cunning prankster Mr. Ivo, who shared shop space with the team.

“Ivo would see us pouting a lot every time we broke an engine, so he started calling us the ‘Sour Sisters,’ and the nickname stuck,” said Safford.

The team switched to Chrysler power in early 1963 before Safford moved to the seat of the B&M Torkmaster car in 1964, which preceded a long and successful stint driving for “Terrible Ted” Gotelli that lasted until early 1969.

Safford made the switch to Funny Cars in 1969, driving first for the Stone-Woods-Cooke team on the new Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars program, which allowed to make contacts with many more racers, track promoters, and manufacturers. Among those he met was Gary Dyer, driver of the Mr. Norm’s Dodge Funny Car, who was looking to step out of the car for the 1970 season after suffering burns in a fire and offered Safford his ride.

Recalled Safford, “I lived downstairs at Gary’s house that year and did all of the work and maintenance on the car. Gary would attend the races with me to do the tuning, and we won more than 75 percent of the nearly 80 races we ran that year.”

When Dyer returned to the cockpit in 1970, Safford returned to Top Fuel, and it was in Larry Bowers’ car that he became a footnote to history because it was Safford who should have been in the other lane at the 1971 Winternationals when Don Garlits scored the first win for a rear-engine car, but a balky clutch kept them from challenging for the title and ruining Garlits’ storybook ending.

Safford returned to driving for Dyer and the Mr. Norm’s team in 1972 but had a less-than-memorable return.

“It was a new Dodge Challenger, and it had a weird type of steering box,” he recalled. “I went over the guardrail on my first run in Lakeland, Fla. We repaired the car, and I ran it for the rest of the season. Prior to the 1973 season, I purchased the car in a transaction that included Mr. Norm’s sponsorship for parts.”

Safford continued running the Mr. Norm’s Dodges through the late 1970s before moving from California to become part owner with Jim Urso of Performance Auto Parts in 1979. Dave Settles drove for him in 1979 and John Potts in 1980, and a combination of the growing business and a severe hand injury in a shop accident that required more than two and a half years of therapy ended his drag racing career.

Safford and his wife, Carolyn, operated Performance Auto Parts through 1996, and he had kept busy building street rods for customers and was involved in the 1999 re-creation of the Sour Sisters car, which took part in the first NHRA Cacklefest and many more in the years that followed. The car is a staple of the NHRA Motorsports Museum.

Safford was recognized by NHRA in 1996 as an honoree at the California Hot Rod Reunion and was inducted into Don Garlits' International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2002.

All in all, a pretty tough two weeks for the sport, and as the years go on and our heroes continue to age, unfortunately, it’s going to continue to provide some sad times. The best we all can do is to honor and treasure those that are still with us and to salute and remember them after they no longer are. That’s my plan.

More Vega panelsFriday, April 18, 2014
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Ahhhh … the threads that keep on delivering. It always amazes me how one subject of a column can lead to another related one and so on. Those of you who have been around this watering hole a long time may remember the long-running wedge dragster thread of 2010 that began innocently enough by my recognizing the passing of NHRA Safety Safari member Ron Rickman, who was famously caught on film dodging the debris from Connie Kalitta’s out-of-control wedge Top Fueler at the 1971 U.S. Nationals. That thread devoured about a dozen columns and had a half-dozen more offshoot to related topics.

And so here we are, four columns after my innocent fanboy retelling of the career of Jake Johnston, which spun into a history of the Wonder Wagon Funny Cars after he told me, in a passing, post-script way, that he drove one of the wagons for a short time, which led to your questions last week, and today, a more thorough look at those wacky Vega panel wagon Funny Cars.

Cliff Morgan asked last week if I knew where any of the original Vega panel bodies had ended up, and I did not, but Dan Glover does. He not only had one but raced it, too. Glover says that this body, which ran on his bracket entry for years at Orange County Int’l Raceway, was the Wonder Wagon body originally used by Kelly Brown. Glover says he got it from an employee of Cragar, who had purchased the car for use on its cold-air experiment. (I quizzed him on that fact because it’s been well documented — here and elsewhere — that it was an ex-Gene Snow chassis that was used in the Cragar testing, but that was what he was told by the guy at Cragar.)

“The body was placed onto a chassis that was mostly built by my partner Gary Bryngelson," he explained. "Gary and I built a chassis at the machine shop where he worked at the time. We used his engine and transmission and rear end. The chassis was a 2X3-inch box with no suspension at all. It really worked well. The car was kept at Gary's house in Yucaipa, Calif., all of its life, where he did most of the work on the car. At times I would travel to Yucaipa to help. I lived in Irvine in an apartment with no garage so having the car there was not an option.

“Gary and I would trade driving duties every other week end for years with Gary's wife, Maureen, working hard as crew chief. As I remember Gary found a buyer for the body at some swap meet I think in San Bernardino and away it went to parts unknown. I believe the chassis went with it as well.

“Gary later found a Corvette Funny Car body up in the Sacramento area and had Norm Porter of NSP Race Cars in Colton, Calif., build a chassis for it. He raced it quite a while and then traded the Corvette body for a roadster body. Turns out that the Corvette body was then bought by John Force and used to build his Wendy's Funny Car for the museum about a year ago.”

Drag racing artist Rick Wilson (http://www.dragracingartprints.com/) says that he remembers visiting a friend’s restoration shop in Kingman, Ariz., in the early 1990s and spying one of the two original Vega Wonder Wagon panel delivery bodies but didn’t have any more details than that. Considering what Glover said above, it would have to have been either the Glenn Way body or one of the three Don Schumacher cars; regardless, it would be amazing that the body stayed that intact for 20 years.

Steve Tansy
Ron Ellis
Norm Day
Dutch Irrgang

Even though the street version of the Vega panel never sold as good as the popular coupes, they did sell. Sales of the two “Kammback” models (there actually were two styles for consumers to choose from: the wagon, which had windows all around and resembled a station wagon, and the “Panel Express” panel delivery with no rear windows) amounted to nearly a third of all Vegas sold in 1974, the model's peak year for sales (115,337 out of 460,374).

(History note: Both were called "Kammbacks," which is an American term referring to a car body style that derives from the research of the German aerodynamicist Wunibald Kamm in the 1930s and describes a body with smooth contours that continues to a tail that is abruptly cut off. This shape reduces the drag of the vehicle. In Europe, the design is generally known as a Kamm tail or K-tail.)

And even though the coupe far outsold the wagons, there were a surprising number of drag racing entries that utilized the body style. We’ve already talked about the Wonder Wagons, the California Stud of Dave Bowman, the Alabamian of Bill Holt (both rear-engine), and the weird four-wheel-drive car of Gary Gabelich, but who else ran one?

Searching the DragList site (which, curiously, has listings for both “Vega panel” and “Vega wagon”) delivered a combined 113 data entries (comprising about 50 separate cars), most of them either Alcohol (or injected fuel) Funny Cars or Pro Stockers.

Only a few more nitro Funny Cars come to light: the Traveling Texan of Bill Rogers, Steve Tansy’s Godfather, and Bobby Wood of Birmingham, Ala., with the note that the latter crashed his car. I have tons of Bobby Wood photos dating back to the mid-1960s in his file, including a ’73 Vega coupe but no wagon. It must have been really short-lived.

The BB/FCs listed (most with colorful names descriptive of the entries) are Norm Day's Vandal Wagon, Ron Ellis’ Trick Truck, Tim Richards' Tequila Sunrise (no, not that Tim Richards; this one was from Colorado), Dave Kinsel’s Untouchable, Bill McDermott’s Untouchables, Brian Louw’s Banzai, Larry Russell, and the wild Sikora Bros.-built rear-engine War Wagon of Corn and Squeege Jerger (their real names!).

Pro Stockers were run by a few notable names such as Dutch Irrgang, George Weiler, Norwin Palmer, and a bunch of (I’m assuming) local heroes who never made the big scene: Charles Crawford, Ace Kolar, Marc Riney, Bruce Loretitsch, Kenny Hilger, Merle Westergaard, Jim Fegle, and Boyd Williams. Jack Ditmars is listed as having an A/FC Vega panel (but I think it was just misremembered as his stretched rear-engine Vega coupe), as did future Alcohol Dragster star Randy Troxel (a pretty orange car called Radiation), and my old pal Greg Zyla, of Vallco Drag Racing Game fame, had a nice A/EA Vega wagon and, of course, a 20.65-second Vega wagon was Alcohol Funny Car star Todd Veney's first race car.

Gary Watson used a Vega panel body on his Paddy Wagon wheelstander, which was built in 1971 and is still running and owned by Maryland’s Bob Hall. Powered by a blown 454 Chevrolet burning alcohol, the car is one of the longest-running exhibition machines in history. The body was built by Fiberglass Limited in Chicago. Jerry McBee also had a Vega panel wheelstander called Tijuana Toad.

So I’ve spent the last few weeks looking at photos of these Vega panel wagons, when it only suddenly struck me that although they were, from an aerodynamic standpoint, unquestionably not well suited to the track, the driver's view must have been terrible, with no real peripheral vision through a “side” window due to the panel design. It must have been like driving while looking through a cardboard tube.

I called Kelly Brown back to get his memories, and he confirmed that not only was the car difficult to see out of but also tough to get out of in an emergency, due to the small window opening, a fact that he discovered in the nasty fire he had in the car at OCIR.

“The fire had burned the rear tires and chutes off the car, and I slid it to a stop the best I could," he remembered of the fire that was caused when improperly sized breather hoses led to excessive pan pressure that blew out the valve cover gaskets. “We didn’t have the [escape] hatches in the cars yet, so I had to bail out of that little window in the front. It was a small window, but I’ll tell you, when you’re on fire, it doesn’t matter. It had already burned the rubber off of my goggles, melted the bill on my open face helmet, burned all the threads out of my left glove, and burned my leg where the zipper for the boots was.

“That car was so scary to drive — these are the kinds of things a driver remembers — that I never took my left hand off the wheel. I did everything — parachutes, fuel shutoff, fire bottles — with my right hand.”

Not long after compiling the list of Vega panel Funny Cars, I got a note from J.R. Ybarra about a Tucson-area Craigslist posting advertising a Vega panel Funny Car. “I don't know if this car is any of the examples you had written about, but this would be a great project for anyone who wants to take it nostalgia racing,” he noted. The ad read as follows: “74 Vega Panel Wagon Funny Car selling as is, no motor or tranny. Set up for BBC. Comes with headers for BBC, fire bottles, 2 trees, wheelie bars, and driveshaft and couplers for shorty Powerglide. $5,500 OBO.”

Looking at the photos of the primered body, I guessed it was either in the midst of a makeover or somehow was a new mold someone was making.

Well, I couldn’t resist at least calling the guy to see where this body came from, now, could I?

Auto Imagery

Gary Hoffsmith was more than happy to share his story and had obviously done his homework, too. He had purchased the car from fellow Arizonian Jim Carter, who had been running the car in the CIFCA injected Funny Car circuit under the name Sweet Justice. But as Hoffsmith sanded off Carter’s colors in preparation to apply his own, he found the orange paint and yellow accents that told him it was probably Troxel’s Radiation body.

Hoffsmith never got the chance to run the car himself and put it up for sale. He’s had lots of offers for trade — including some asking if it was one of the Wonder Wagon cars — but no real buyers yet. Wonder if Troxel knows about this?

Finally, I was pleased and surprised to hear back from Bob Kachler, whom I wrote about as one of the ground-floor participants in the creation of the original Wonder Wagon sponsorship. I was pleased to hear that he thought I had accurately portrayed the situation and later sent me a gift package consisting of the image at right, which is a copy of his original idea for the Wonder Wagon (taken, as you will remember, from the cartoonish Deal’s Wheels line made by Revell), as well as a copy of a short children’s book he had written and illustrated, The Story of Willy, the A/Gasser. He also included a fabulous commemorative Lions poster he had made called Remembering Lions Drag Strip, with some great photos of the old place, and not just cars on the racetrack. The poster also includes images of the iconic crossover bridge/tower, the pit-pass booth, concession stands, and more. What pleased even more than that was the handwritten dedication: “To Phil Burgess, a great writer and a great detective.”

Man, I live for this stuff. Thanks to all of you for making this column meaningful and vibrant and, as I said in my opening, helping make each column idea I come up with not just a door to the past but a road to future columns.

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