Features

A day late and a column shortWednesday, June 23, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Don’t cry for me, Argentina, but it has been a super-busy week at National DRAGSTER, and I apologize for missing our usual Tuesday appointment and for a pretty brief (but I hope nonetheless entertaining) column.

Two weeks ago, I showed off the handbill sent by Bill Moser promoting an Aug. 6, 1966, match race between the recently featured Piranha and Darrell Droke's Mustang at Muncie Dragway, where he was responsible for promotions in the 1960s.

It was pretty cool to see the low-buck yet effective form of advertising and inspired reader Rick Rzepka to send a few similar items from his collection, also from 1966, which you can see below and view full size by clicking on the link below each.

Just reading the names of some of the players is enough to give you chills and make me wish fervently for a time machine. The Turbine Dart, Doug Thorley's Chevy 2 Much, Mr. Norm, Jack Chrisman, "Fast Eddie" Schartman, Connie Kalitta, "T.V. Tommy" Ivo, K.S. Pittman, Stone-Woods-Cook, Paula Murphy vs. Della Woods, Green Monster, Terrifying Tornado, the Wagon Master ... man, oh, man. Are your juices flowing yet?

And you gotta love the artwork and the lettering, apparently done in artist's pen. Check out the extra emphasis on some words, either by making them really big or bold, and the numerous font changes and the way that some letters are colored in. They reek of amateurism but also of beautiful nostalgia. Those were surely simpler times. Thanks to Rick for sending these, which will no doubt invoke memories for many of you.

Got old handbills or posters? Scan 'em up, send them to me, and tell me the story behind them. Did you go to those races? Man, I can't wait. This could be fun.

 

All of this nostalgia and match racing got me to reflecting on the story I did a year ago today when ND Photo Editor Teresa Long and I visited "the Snake," Don Prudhomme, at his Vista, Calif., shop to shoot a feature on his collection of restored Funny Cars. You can read it here; it's one of my favorite pieces.

Anyway, the highlight of that day (other than getting to sit in the white Hot Wheels 'Cuda) was the lunch trip with "Snake" in his restored Dodge ramp truck with the yellow 'Cuda strapped to its back. The truck was one of a pair -- the other, of course, being used by Wildlife Racing partner Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen. I wonder what happened to McEwen's truck.

Prudhomme finally tracked down his, which had remained in Southern California (or at least ended up back there, ironically in the same San Fernando Valley of his youth). Does anyone know what became of McEwen's hauler? If you do, drop me a line. People were so taken by the restoration job that Prudhomme and Willie Wolter did on their truck, wouldn’t it be cool to see both of them together?
 

Feedback FridayFriday, June 18, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

It's Friday, the end of the working week for a lot of you, but with Bristol thundering along this weekend, plus the Holley NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion and more going on around the country, it's going to be a busy weekend in the old NHRA.com household.

I didn't want the week to get away without a little recent feedback. I was really surprised by the number of responses to Richard Brady's photo of Lou Patane's Top Fueler. It's definitely a well-remembered piece of pipe. I found the photo at right in our files that may help give you a better look at the car and illustrate some of the comments below.

Paul Katata wrote, "If I recall correctly, Lou's car was originally built as a team car to Johnny Loper's Arrow Funny Car of the time by Jaime Sarte at his Van Nuys [Calif.] shop. Loper's Arrow was also a Sarte 'Pro Car.' The Funny Car influence is obvious, with the lower-to-the-ground headers and the front tires. I also seem to remember it having a shorter wheelbase than the dragsters of that time period. It also had an early version of a modular rear end, with a solid tube axle and possibly knockoffs. At least that's what I think I remember!"

Phoenix native Frankie LoCascio added, "I remember seeing Lou's car at Firebird in the mid- to late '80s with both Lou Patane and '240 Shorty' Tripp Shumake driving the car at different times. I think the old Top Fuel car is still here in the Phoenix area. Back when I was working at Johnny Loper's speed shop, one of my coworkers had purchased the chassis. Not sure what he ever did with it, but I'm fairly certain it's still here in the valley."
 
Eric Gates commented, "Your info on Patane's fueler got me to thinking about a car I saw way back when. It was at Indy, maybe '78 or '79. Gary Beck showed up with a Thrush Top Fuel car that had a radically different (for the time) wing and low-slung look. I would love to see a write-up on this car, and I know you have the resources to find it."

Eric is exactly right, but it took a quick e-mail to GB's good buddy Henry Walther (who not that long ago completed a beautiful and meticulous restoration of the Larry Minor/Beck 5.39 car). Henry knew what Eric was talking about and, conveniently, happened to be housesitting this week for Beck while GB is in Washington.

"The car he is referring to is the rear-engine car that Hume and Foster built for Gary," he wrote. "It wasn't all that unusual, but what gave it a different look was that the rear wing was mounted low and behind the rear tires. It made the overall car look very low and swoopy. That was sort of a 'Can-Am look' of the day. As it turned out, and as we have seen with the ultimate placement of wings, the car wasn't all that successful. I believe it ultimately ended up in Larry Minor's hands and used as a sand rail."

Walther found a photo of the car in an old handout, which is pictured above right. Thanks, Henry!

Cliff Morgan, another resident of the Valley of the Sun, added, "Lou Patane was a Mopar dealer here in Phoenix for many years and later became director of Mopar Racing. The car in the photo was part of a video produced by Main Event, called Nitro Warriors Vol. 1, 1988, and showcased the 1988 Super Bowl of Drag Racing at Firebird Int'l Raceway. Don Garlits and Jon Lundberg do the commentary on the video. Patane later ran a twin-engine car in TAD, and it had two Hemis on gasoline and nitrous. Never got real competitive until Patane took out one of the motors and switched the car to A/FD. I think it ran more Division 7 than anything else. This was 1990s. I seem to remember that Patane then got the Mopar Racing job and stopped racing cars."

Morgan also chimed in on the photo of Gordon Mineo's Funny Car-turned-Top Fueler, and, again, our vast photo files had an alternate shot of the car at Lions. I love the big question mark on the side of the car. Said Morgan, "I was at Lions when Mineo ran that car. What makes me remember this event is that it was during this time period that a lot of the Funny Car racers (in Southern California, anyway) wanted Funny Car to be the premier class and wanted Top Fuel to go away. This ticked me off greatly, and I kinda turned on Funny Car. I didn't go to any Funny Car-only races during that time and only saw them race when there was a show that included them. I was a die-hard Top Fuel fan, and that is still my favorite class. Anyhoo, I wasn't impressed with Mineo's effort, and I wrote one of my (infamous) letters to the editor of one of the drag racing mags of the time and called Mineo's car 'the Phony Fueler.' Heh. Needless to say, that stirred the pot with the Funny Ca fans. The photo brings back memories of that night and of that time."

William Duke provided additional info about the night, reporting that Mineo did indeed qualify for the field and went one round before losing to Lions regulars Butters and Gerard.

My comments that I was trying to wind up the wedge thread met with a chorus of discontent from a number of you, who just can’t let it go (me either!).

Jeff Robinson wrote, "As far as I am concerned, keep it coming. I just love the things you write; since I stopped racing, it really does help fill the void. I am almost afraid to go back and watch; I just don't think I would make a good spectator, knowing I can't afford to do it again."

Ivan Siler added, "I have thoroughly enjoyed your series on wedge dragsters. I was fortunate to see several of them in person during the early 1970s because that was a time when our sport was its healthiest! After Garlits' rear-engine revolution, EVERYONE was out to build a better mousetrap — and innovation was the order of the day. Drag racers have always been the most creative motorsports guys on the planet, and that era is so intriguing because our sport was at its best. It is tragic that NHRA Top Fuel has deteriorated to Murf McKinney cookie-cutter cars (no offense intended — great cars for sure — just boring when the whole field is full of them). Surely there must be some 'Lil’ John' Butteras, Pat Fosters, Doug Kruses, Ed Donovans, and E.J. Potters simmering around out there. This series has been a great reminder of the creative legacy we enjoy — keep fanning the flames!"

Joe Faraci pleaded, "Before you put the streamliner to bed, did you mention Jim Head’s ‘experiment’ from the early 1990s? It had a rounded wedge body, and I believe he tested it a few times in Gainesville."

Here it is, Joe. I know I have info on the car around here somewhere that I'll try to dig up, but, to Ivan's point earlier, I think Jim Head is one of those brilliant minds. Left to his imagination, I can’t begin to think about what kind of car he'd dream up. We've already seen the fruits of his within-the-rules thinking (the multistage clutch, the "noodle" car, etc.), so the mind reels at what the guy his crew used to call "the mad scientist" would cook up left to his own devices.

OK, gang, see you next week, probably on Wednesday, but maybe earlier. Have a good weekend, especially you dads. Happy early birthday tomorrow to Shirley Muldowney and Bob Wilber, two of my favorite people in our sport.
 

Posted by: Phil Burgess

So, there we were, enjoying brewskies and fine bench racing at the annual Scott Kalitta memorial get-together in the Kalitta pit Saturday night in E-town. One well-lubricated PR type, a self-professed big fan of the column, leaned over and said something on the order of, "I know all I need to know about wedge dragsters … it's time to move on, Phil."

As much as I have enjoyed – and been amazed at the lifespan of – this extended segue into a relatively minor part of our sport's history, I'm inclined to agree. Too bad other readers don’t feel that way yet. The headline for today's column is directly from the subject line of an e-mail from one of them, longtime National DRAGSTER lensman Richard Brady, who sent this shot of Lou Patane's aerodynamically enhanced Top Fueler from 1979. The snout is certainly reminiscent of the Jim and Alison Lee car featured here last week

He noted, "While scanning all my old stuff and being able to see some of the stuff I took way back when, I ran across this shot from the AHRA Winter Nationals in 1979! I was on my way to Pomona, of course, and driving as usual, or in this case riding with George Williams, who was running in Stock eliminator with his Z/Stock four-speed Vega! While not a true streamliner as all your other cars pictured, I thought then as I do now that this car had some added things to the body that made it pretty swoopy, for its time at least!"
 

Shades of Jim Dunn!: Thomas Naccarato sent the interesting photo at right of late flopper star "Flash Gordon" Mineo running a decidedly not Funny Car, which I had seen and the circumstances of which I was vaguely familiar, and he also shared a clipping from a magazine that explains the photo.

Mineo's Funny Car had been damaged a few weeks earlier when his car got airborne in the lights (at Fremont, I believe), destroying the body. The Texas racer, anxious not to miss any dates, added a wing and brief body panels to his Funny Car chassis and went Top Fuel racing. He smoked his way to a 7.01 that qualified him well in the Lions Top Fuel field. There's no mention of how well he did, but it sure made for an interesting-looking piece.
 

In the item on the Lees' Top Fueler, I noted the early aerodynamic appendages on the side of the car just in front of the rear tires and surmised that they were early versions of the common "mud flaps" on today's Top Fuelers. I was thrilled to hear from longtime and respected nitro crewmember Dana Kimmel on the subject. Kimmel was a crewmember on Don "the Snake" Prudhomme's Skoal Bandit Top Fueler, which seems to be ground zero for the modern-day units. (At right is a photo from the winner's circle at "Snake's" 1989 Indy/Shootout Funny Car double; Kimmel is at left holding the Wally, and Mike Kloeber and crewmember Larry Dixon are at right. That was some good team.)

"The wedge storyline you are pursuing is approaching the 1990 debut of the now-common 'Eaker flaps,' or mud flaps, as they were more commonly called," he wrote. "These common accessories were designed, built, and tested in about 30 minutes at the NRC Lab Ottawa just days prior the Montreal race where 'Snake' crashed in yet another incident of the forgettable 1990 return to Top Fuel season.

"The story of the flaps was a simple one. We were testing the use of canard wings just behind the driver, and after about three tests, the NRC engineers suggested we turn them up over 45 degrees to see some positive results. Pontiac’s Gary Eaker (of the GM Aero Lab), who was overseeing the project, suggested we just add flat plates and lose the wings. So myself, Larry Dixon, and Willy Wolter went off to the fab shop within the wind-tunnel facility and sheared out the pieces needed. The existing body panel dictated the angle, and a break in the large square part allowed it to pick up the two existing Dzus fastener holes. The triangle piece was cut to fit, and the whole assembly was taped together for the next series of tests. Not very scientific, but a solid approach that yielded a big return in offsetting the 1,000-plus lift generated by the rear tires.

"We ran the first test with no wing front or rear to ascertain the true characteristics of a Top Fuel chassis, which in this case was a brand-new Al Swindahl car (which expired days later in its first race at Sanair). Other areas we tested that day were skinning the rear wing stands so it appeared like a twin-tailed F-14 to test the stabilizing effect of the 'tails' when yawing the car varying amounts. That test was conclusive enough to reveal a rear vertical stabilizer really had no positive effect until the car was far enough sideways that you could read the sponsor’s name. This was due to the poor airflow past the engine, etc., and it was concluded the drag incurred by the rear wing was way more of an influence on directional stability than the tails would be. Think way bigger if you are wanting a functional tail on your fuel dragster. Anyway, the pictured mud flaps debuted for competition at Denver 1990.

"They were fabricated, with the one-piece composite versions arriving on the scene for the 1991 season. Within a year, they were standard-issue accessories, and by 1992, 100 percent adoption. Now 20 years later, they are standard equipment, and no one gives them a second thought."
 


 

Speaking of the Lees, I received some photos via e-mail from Brian Beattie, who is the proud owner of the restored version of their Great Expectations II front-engine dragster (Dyda Race Engineering did the restoration). Beattie was the photographer at what was then known as Madison Township Raceway Park in Englishtown (now Old Bridge) and had taken a number of pictures of the Lees' car throughout the years. He said that he was fortunate enough to find the original car 34 years later and purchase it.  He made contact with the Lees, and they gave the go-ahead to restore the car.

The Lees and former driver Tom Raley first saw the completed car at the Best of Times Reunion in Richmond, Va., last month. Pictured are, from left, Beattie, Raley, and the Lees. Tom's wife, Heidi, is in the car.


So, what's a Corvette? A number of you – including Paul Cuff, Mike Hoppel, and Jim Doire, from among the e-mails I could quickly find -- chimed in correctly that the corvette was basically a small fighting ship. Wikipedia defines it thusly: "A corvette is a small, maneuverable, lightly armed warship, originally smaller than a frigate (2,000-plus tons) and larger than a coastal patrol craft or Fast Attack Craft (500 or fewer tons), although many recent designs resemble frigates in size and role. During the Age of Sail, corvettes were smaller than frigates and larger than sloops-of-war, usually with a single gun deck. Although almost all modern navies use ships smaller than frigates for coastal duty, not all of them use the term corvette (from the French corvair) or equivalent."

OK, that's it for today. Moving forward, unless there's another great influx of wedge-related material, I'm going to consider this case closed (for now) and look for fresh material to launch another six-week thread. <g> Thanks for reading.
 

Fish stories and other stuffTuesday, June 08, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Response to my "fish tale" about the famed AMT Piranha was, like the fish itself, quick and strong and with a little bite.

Like me, many of you had heard of the car but not in much detail. It's always fascinating when I do these in-depth research projects. I've been around this sport for most of my life and like to think I know everything, but it doesn't take very long for me to discover (and rediscover) just what a small fraction of its history I really do know. (More on this later.)

First things first. The bite I mentioned is the toothy replies from a couple of readers – W. Larry Glick and Glenn Walker --  who snorted when they read my description of the Corvair engine that powered the Piranha street version as a water-cooled four-cylinder when in fact it was an air-cooled six. I also left a little bit of a logic gap concerning the project's demise and realized that I had accidentally deleted one paragraph. I don’t have it anymore, but it basically said that AMT had to fold up shop because the cost to hand make each unit was more than the determined selling price and because of the Corvair's many woes and its imminent cancellation by GM (to make room for the Camaro, I suppose).

Bill Moser, who was responsible for promotions at Muncie Dragway during the 1960s, sent a copy of the handbill that he developed for use when the Piranha came to town to race FX hero Darrell Droke's Mustang Aug. 6, 1966.

I also received an e-mail from Craig Sanburn, who recalled the race car's first sale from Bill Harrah's collection. "When Bill died and they decided to sell the collection (or most of it)," he wrote, "I happened to be in Reno just before they had the first of three auctions. I was walking back in an area I wasn't supposed to be in and not only found Ed Roth's Road Agent and sat in it, but I also stumbled upon the Piranha. It was in semi-sad shape but mostly all there. I have the program somewhere, and it showed the car as it sat. It wasn't all painted, but the motor was in it, with blower on top! I sat in it and goofed around for a while until a guy from the collection told me I wasn't supposed to be back there, so I left but still have my memories."

The car-names info got a few giggles, too. Noting the funny definition that one journalist had come up with for the name Camaro ("loose bowels"), Ken Campbell asked, "So if I have a seriously upset stomach, can I go to the doctor and say I have 'Camaro?' "

Speaking of having to go, Cliff Morgan reminded me of the case of the famous Chevy Nova, which sold poorly in Mexico. Apparently, GM officials were scratching their heads trying to figure out why sales south of the border were so slow until they realized that "no va" is Spanish for "doesn't go." And finally, our old pal Bret Kepner, who called my Piranha piece "probably the most accurate and complete recounting of the car's history ever written," (thank you, thank you) challenged me as to the roots of the Corvette name, which I did know. Do you?

The photos keep coming in of wedge cars (c'mon, seriously ... you didn't think we'd be able to go more than one column without talking about them, did you?), and I'll get to them in the very near future. Some are wedge cars, and some are aerodynamic wonders (as in, "I wonder what they were thinking"). The week's most interesting e-mail came from Tyler Hilton, the son of former Top Fuel shoe Bobby Hilton, who sent several shots of his dad at the wheel of Jim and Alison Lee's wedgy Top Fueler, which was built by Lester Guillory and featured a blunt nose and wedge-like panels in front of the rear tires, definite predecessors to the elephant ears on today's cars.

I knew of Hilton and of the car, but I didn't know that Bobby Hilton is the Lees' son-in-law. Tyler reported that Jim and Alison still have their farm in Virginia and recently started going to events with the restoration of the front-engine Great Expectations II fueler (which Tom Raley drove). "They would probably still be running a fueler if the money wasn't an issue these days," he said. "My old man has been thinking about getting his license renewed and getting a ride in one of the nostalgia front-engine fuelers or a Funny Car." Bobby and Diane Hilton live about a mile from the Lees; Tyler lives in Cincinnati with his dad's side of the family, working on vintage fuel cars and building hot rods.

It's good to hear that the Lees, the preeminent husband and wife fuel racing team of the 1970s, are still hooked on the sport. I probably need to follow up on this story.


As I mentioned at the head of this column, doing research produces a never-ending swoon, and, thanks to the power of the Internet, it's amazing what you can come up with if you know how to dig.

Here are a couple of good examples from some of my National DRAGSTER work, specifically in the context of the research to bring you The Misc. Files feature, which showcases 10 images. The Misc. Files initially began online (A through L) before it was moved into ND, where recently I completed R and S. The photos in those articles were filed in "miscellaneous" folders because the subjects were unknown or did not have enough photos to warrant their own folder. Pretty much, I grab the folders for each letter and leaf through the photos until something catches my eye. Maybe it's a car I already know about or just an interesting-looking car or setting. Once I've winnowed the hundreds of photos to about 15, I start researching, based on what I can see in the photo and whatever caption info might be on the back. Some quickly lead to dead ends, and I move on.

One of my cooler finds lately was this photo of Ed Rachanski's 427 wedge-powered Super Marauder Mercury Comet. I thought it was a cool photo and had vaguely heard of Rachanski, so I knew I had enough to go on. It wasn't until I started researching that I discovered that not only was he an early partner on a Super Stocker with Pat Minnick and John Farkonas of future Chi-Town Hustler fame, but he also was an instrumental part of the zMax lubricant story. In the early 1970s, he was president and owner of Blueprint Aircraft Engines Inc., an FAA-certified aircraft-engine-repair facility. His company was selected by Shell Oil to do lubricant testing on helicopter engines, which brought him together with Joe Lencki, who had been experimenting with antiwear lubricants since 1934 and whose company, Oil-Chem Research Corp., made a product called Lenckite. Today, that product is known today as zMax. After Lencki died in May 1994, Rachanski was instrumental in the company’s sale to Bruton Smith in 1996, and Rachanski became director of research-development-testing at Oil-Chem in 1996 and led the company's Indy 500 efforts until 2001. Shortly after that was published, I was quite stunned to receive a letter from Rachanski thanking me for sharing his story.

"At 75 years old, we ol' drag racers have only 'rockin' chair' stories that the younger ones are not in," he wrote. Goes to show ya that you never know who's going to read your stuff. Rachanski also passed along the URL to his Fabulous Racers site for the Nevada Vintage Race Car Museum, which, among other things, tells his story and that of Lencki.

This week's S edition of The Misc. Files (actually part 2 for the letter S; there were way too many photos to restrict it to 10) includes a shot of "the Moline Madman," Sid Seeley. I covered a little bit of his history, and it wasn't until I kept digging that I found out that his son, Jason, also races (brackets, at Cordova Dragway Park) and that his daughter, Amy, an actress, created a 90-minute one-woman stage show called Amy Seeley and The Moline Madman that celebrated the life of her father and her relationship with him. Cool!

OK, gang, that's it for today and probably for the week. In what is becoming an all-too-common lament (sorry!), I'm buried in a mound of National DRAGSTER work (coverage from the Chicago national event and the JEGS Allstars that ran there) that has to be completed before I head to Englishtown Thursday – my first trip back there in more than a decade. It's a busy June, with races on all four weekends, but I'll be back ASAP with more stuff for us to enjoy and learn from.
 

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