By the time you read this Friday, I’ll be in Englishtown for another trip to one of my favorite races, the Toyota NHRA Summernationals. I’ve been going to the East Coast classic since the 1980s, and it seems that each race there provides something incredible to remember. I’m sure this year will be no different.
If you’re a schedule watcher, you’ll know we’re in the midst of a hellacious stretch, with 10 races in 12 weeks, so my ND compadres and I are spending a lot of time on the road. It’s easy to get backed up on work and correspondence, so I’m going to clear a little of the latter today.
I found this very cool but little-watched (63 views at the time of this posting) video about "Otie" Smith that was lovingly created a year ago by Randy Lipscomb.
Before I get into that, I’d like to take time to acknowledge the passing last Friday of Otis “Otie” Smith, the 1959 Middle Eliminator winner at the Nationals in Detroit. Smith, who wheeled a very cool supercharged '23-T to victory that year, was 94.
Along with Art and Walt Arfons and Arlen Vanke, Smith was one of several hot rodding heroes to come out of Akron, Ohio, and an early supporter of NHRA, running the regional in his hometown before the Nationals was even established and racing all over the Midwest as well as taking trips to Florida, Maine, and California.
An avowed lifelong car nut – he began driving his father’s '29 Model A Ford before he reached his teen years -- Smith began racing in 1953, driving a '32 Ford roadster at the Akron airport track, and by his estimation went on to compete in about 100 NHRA events in his 13-year career. Smith also operated Otie’s Automotive Specialties in Akron for 33 years until 1988. Asked once why he liked to drive fast, Smith replied, “You got to be a little nuts. It was just fun. That's all.”
Smith is survived by wife Betty, son Bill, daughters Debbie Hughes and Laurie Smith, six grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren. I spoke to Bill on the phone earlier this week. The two had competed in the gas dragster ranks for years after "Otie" stopped driving, and he confirmed that his father had been in ill health lately.
If you’ve hung around this pop stand long enough, the name Robert Nielsen should be a familiar one. The longtime SoCal fan and photographer has contributed numerous items and photos to this column throughout the years and is not afraid to debate me. You might remember us going back and forth about who was behind the wheel of the Beach City Corvette when it ran off the end of the Orange County Int’l Raceway track in flames (I won) and the question about who was the greatest Hawaiian drag racer of all time (I say Roland Leong, he says Danny Ongais; one day, I’ll get around to proving it), and now he’s taking me to task on the terminology of race cars whose engines sit behind the driver. I used the terms “rear-engine” and “mid-engine” interchangeably in my discussions of that configuration, but Nielsen is insistent that the dragsters and Funny Cars of that ilk are simply mid-engine.
“A while back, we discussed rear-engine cars versus mid-engine cars,” he wrote me recently. “I was advocating rear-engine cars were actually misnamed. I professed that a rear-engine car would have its engine behind the rear axle, whereas a mid-engine – like all of the current Top Fuel cars – would have the engine behind the driver, yet ahead of the rear axle.”
Don Garlits' Swamp Rat 14: rear- or mid-engine? Or both ...
Best of both worlds: Lloyd Scott's Bustle Bomb, Olds in front, Caddy in the rear
Front-engined. Definitely front-engined
In truth, he’s right. If you look up production cars that are designated as “rear-engine,” you see cars such as Volkswagen Beetles, Chevy Corvairs, and Porsche 911s where the layout places the engine at the rear of the vehicle (on or behind the rear axle), whereas cars like your typical Ferrari and even the humble Pontiac Fiero are considered mid-engine. Point Nielsen.
Still, just about everyone I know refers to the old slingshot dragsters as front-engine Top Fuelers, so, at least in name to me, their antithesis was the rear-engine car. And if you got out a measuring tape, I’m fairly certain that you’d find that the slingshot dragsters had their engines as close to the rear end (or closer) than today’s so-called rear-engine cars, but everyone still calls them front-engine cars. So, I asked Nielsen, the designation is in relation to where the engine is in the overall length of the wheelbase?
“NO!” I imagine he shouted his reply. “The designation is in relationship to where the engine is located relative to where the rear axle and driver are. Front-engine cars have the engine ahead of both the rear axle and driver – like the old-school slingshot cars. Mid-engine cars have the engine between the driver and rear axle – like the Javelin 1 Funny in your latest column. Rear-engine cars have the engine behind the rear axle.
“Rear-engine versus mid-engine is just one of many examples where the media have promoted the incorrect use of terminology to the point where it probably cannot be reversed. Another example is when two airplanes accidentally fly in close proximity to one another. These events are incorrectly referred to as near misses. A near miss in the true sense would be an event where the two planes actually come in contact with one another. So instead of saying near miss when they do not collide, it should be more properly called a near hit!”
Drag racing magazines of the early 1970s often called the new breed of Top Fuelers “mid-engine” or “midis,” and I’ll concede, it’s a more accurate term than “rear-engine,” but even the guy who perfected the design, “Big Daddy” Don Garlits, calls his famous Swamp Rat 14 a rear-engined car throughout his newest self-written book, Don Garlits and His Cars. How can you argue with "Big Daddy"?
So, like a lot of legacy drag racing terms that are more colorful than they are accurate (bleach box, Funny Car, Christmas Tree, etc.), I don’t think “rear-engine” is going away anytime soon, even though “mid-engine” is more correct. But, Robert … yeah, it’s still Leong.
Cliff Morgan, another Insider regular, noticed the blue and yellow graphic (above) that I use to switch subjects and said that it reminded him of Norm Wilcox's “back-motor car” (his words, Robert!), the Skyjacker.
“I think he first ran it in late 1971, but I remember it at Lions, etc. in 1972. It was a good car, ran some numbers. Car was yellow with blue lettering. I remember thinking it was a strange name for a Top Fuel car, but sign of the times as airplane hijackings were called ‘skyjackings’ at the time. Wilcox always had strong front-engine cars, and his won his share. I think he may have run Top Gas but not sure. Maybe one day do a blurb on him.”
Wilcox certainly has been around, from driving Top Fuel to Top Gas (national record holder!) to Funny Car (including being one of Leong’s many pilots), and the Skyjacker that Morgan mentions actually was the cover car on the November 1972 issue of Drag Racing USA. As you can see, it’s a concept piece, with Wilcox stepping off a plane, lensed by another good pal of the Insider, Jere Alhadeff.
According to the article (which carried the cute subheadline “It’s a federal offense at 30,000 feet, but on the quarter it’s legal Top Fuel money”), the car was named for safety equipment manufacturer Bill Simpson’s new, lower-priced, cross-form parachute, known as the Skyjacker, no doubt in tribute to hijacker D.B. Cooper, who the previous November had pulled off his great escape via parachute. The fate of Cooper may never be known, but the Skyjacker lives on in the Simpson product line.
Simpson and Wilcox fielded the Skyjacker Top Fueler together; Wilcox then was the assistant manager at Simpson’s famous shop in Torrance, Calif. (Wilcox lived in nearby Redondo Beach and according to the article was known then as “the Redondo Rocket”; first time I’ve heard that!) The car, powered then by a 392, qualified an impressive No. 2 at the famous 1972 PRO National Challenge in Tulsa, Okla., with a 6.246 at 228.42 mph but exited early; a Donovan 417 was soon planned with “hopes the ‘Skyjacker’ will be able to escape from the strip with more ransom money than the infamous D.B. Cooper,” according to the article. Records show that Simpson and Wilcox ran this car together for at least two seasons, but I’m sure there’s much more to be told on Wilcox’s long career. I’ll add him to my list!
During the Vega panel thread, I heard from Rich Hanna, who mentioned that one of his team’s drivers, Alyson Kurtas, was hoping to become the first licensed female wheelstander pilot in the famed Paddy Wagon entry; reader Ralph Reiter pointed out that that ship had long ago sailed when Canadian Sylvia Braddick earned her wheelstander license in 1973. Turns out he is correct.
In the time when we’re talking about female accomplishments and milestones in the wake of Courtney Force’s victory last weekend in Topeka, the 100th Pro win by a woman in NHRA competition, I guess we need to get this one straight, too.
Braddick, born in Winnipeg and raised in Vancouver, became interested in cars while in high school. She began attending the drag races at Abbotsford Airport as a spectator but soon took her love of cars to the track, where she raced a '58 Chevy Biscayne and then a GTO. After that became too tame for her, she and her husband, Stewie, purchased Chuck Poole’s Chuckwagon wheelstanding pickup in 1972, installed a pair of alcohol-burning 426 Hemis in the bed, and renamed it the Canadian Lady. She later changed the name to Ecstacy to describe the emotion she felt driving the machine. According to a story published a few years ago, to get her license, Braddick had to make 60 clean runs on dragstrips sanctioned by NHRA; that seems a bit excessive and may have been misinterpreted by the reporter but nonetheless shows she did go through channels to get an official license. She raced the exhibition machine until 1977, when she quit to spend more time with her children and the family business, Payless Auto Accessories.
And finally, because we’re talking about this being Englishtown weekend, I wanted to share this drawing, sent by East Coast artist John Bell. It’s a sketch that he made in 1975 that was commissioned by a young racer who had Funny Car dreams, or maybe just fantasies. You know him today as Lewis “Stat Guy” Bloom, who grew up at Raceway Park, announcing and watching race cars. We had a great interview with Lewis in a recent issue of National Dragster talking about his background and his stats-keeping routines. Check it out when you get a chance.
I also got a note from Jim Wemett, former car owner and partner with the recently departed Tom Anderson, who wanted me to share this link to a tribute video he created for his friend. Check it out.
OK, that’s it for today. I’ll say hi to Lewis and Jim for you guys.
I really had no intention of continuing the AMC drag car thread this week, but apparently, y’all weren’t ready to let it go, at least based on the outpouring of photos and thoughts that rained into my email this past week.
Steve Reyes and Bob Snyder sent care packages of a slew of AMC racers on the strip, some of which I will share. Some do not have a large amount of information associated with them, but I’ll share what I have, beginning with another series by our pal Reyes.
Preston Honea’s rare altered-wheelbase AMC Marlin, provided by SoCal Dodge dealer Bill Kraft Rambler, was powered by a 426 Chrysler Hemi. Honea, of St. Louis, went on to race in Pro Stock in the early 1970s but with Chevys. He passed away in February 2012.
The super-wild AMX-1 of Jim Thomas and Gerry Walker, with the driver’s head protruding through the rear window.
Larry Derr’s Glass Rat ’70 Javelin takes flight at Lions Drag Strip. As could be inferred from its name, it, too, was Chevy-powered.
Clyde Morgan’s EXP Javelin launches at Lions. Check out starter Larry Sutton, resplendent in black hat, black tie, and tuxedo-like jacket!
Morgan gets ‘er sideways on the launch at Irwindale.
“Banzai Bill” Hayes and the original Grant Rambler on the trailer at Irwindale Raceway. Dennis Doubleday confirmed some information on the Grant Rebel, noting that Hayes drove it early in 1967 and that Hayden Proffitt took over later in the year. A new car was built for 1968, and the 1967 car was then run by Ron Roseberry as the King Rebel in 1968 and later run by Weidlein & Blandford as an A/FC in 1970. Proffitt drove the new Rebel in 1968, and Pat Johnson and driver Hank Clark teamed up on the car in 1969. Charlie Adams ran the car in 1970 and Kenny Dobson in 1971.
The King Rebel of Roseberry gets prepped in the pits at Sacramento Raceway in 1968.
Gary Crane and the Scrima-built Travelin’ Javelin at Orange County Int’l Raceway in 1969. According to Phil Elliott, he sold it to Larry Palmer, a painter by profession, who ran it with a new paint scheme.
Michigan’s Ron Ellis traded in his T-bucket body for an AMX shell but kept the same Logghe chassis framerails around his blown gas Chrysler engine. This is Dallas in 1970.
The blower guys weren’t the only ones having fun. Here’s Johnny O’Neil taking a wild ride at Lions in 1971 in his injected Javelin.
From the lens of Bob Snyder
Virginia’s Butch Kernodle and driver Charles Lee ran the Super Javelin injected nitro flopper in 1970 and 1971, then sold it to Ron Richter and Tony Tillman. Power came from a 427 Chevy.
Hayden Proffitt’s version of the Grant Rebel SST, under tow.
Lou Azar’s Funny Gremlin had one of just a trio of bodies of the unique subcompact car made by Pat Murphey of Riviera Plastics. I heard from Bill Engle, who had one of the others and was planning to build an injected Gremlin Funny Car of his own in 1969 but couldn’t finish it due to financial reasons. When Azar crashed his own body, Engle, who lives in Oklahoma City, agreed to meet Azar at Tulsa that year to sell him his body.
Dick Bourgeois and Earl Wade were originally part of the Doug Thorley AMC effort with a tricolor Javelin (see below) in 1969 but went out on their own in 1970 with this all-red edition.
And some random images from the Dragster files.
The Javelin 2, the Bourgeois & Wade conventional follow-up to Thorley’s ill-fated rear-engine Javelin 1.
Here’s Hank Clark, one of the later owners of the Rebel, running Curt Wasson’s Superstitious Camaro.
Dickie Harrell may have been “Mr. Chevrolet,” but Dick Vendl was "Mr. AMX." The Illinois racer bought two new AMXes in 1968, one for the street and one to race. He took on the “Mr. AMX” moniker, which he says was officially endorsed by American Motors and led to a position with the company as a sales engineer selling the idea of AMC high performance to dealers. He has since raced in a bunch of other motorsports. You can see more photos here: http://www.superstockamx.com/page77.php
I can’t find any information anywhere on this one, but this injected nitro Javelin, the Preferred Javelin, was run by Dick Hedrick.
Jim Hill, whose encyclopedic knowledge of drag racing came in part through his long tenure with Crane Cams, remembers well AMC’s dedicated effort to challenge the Big Three in the performance market, which led to the creation of the 52-car run of the famed Super Stock-edition AMXes (most sanctioning bodies, including NHRA, insisted on a minimum factory production run of 50 cars, known as homologation).
Here is his remembrance, and some more Reyes photos:
Just like GM, Ford, and Chrysler, AMC's marketing team felt that they too could create showroom sales by using drag racing competition as a lure to the "youth market" coveted by all.
I well remember the efforts of the very dedicated and driven AMC racing staff as they toiled at creating seriously competitive AMC vehicles and parts for NHRA and AHRA competition. In those days I was Harvey Crane's "ad guy" and saw firsthand the effort put forth by AMC to create a dragstrip winner.
|Eugene “Pete” Peterson got No. 39 when he was operating Peterson Motor Co. in Kearney, Neb., and turned it into the fabled Pete's Patriot machine, which was driven by Lou Downing, whose son, Rob, is one of the top wrenches on the KB Racing Pro Stock team. There's a pretty swell three-part story on the car, which recently was restored, here.
|The Frog, No. 15 of 52 Super Stock AMXes, was sold to Bundy Motors in Lakewood, Colo., and owned by John Bandimere (of Bandimere Speedway fame) and driven by "Friendly Frank" Peterson. (Read more here)
Kansas City AMC/Brian Rodekopf, AMX No. 50. Brian’s father, Bill, and Bob Smith helped pioneer the work on those early AMC engines.
An AMC development team of engineers and technicians spent several weeks at Crane Cams' sunny Hallandale, Fla., facilities during the winter of 1967-68. While there they spent considerable time dyno testing and then proving their efforts at Miami-Hollywood Dragway. Crane Cams was not only a "warm weather welcome test venue," but also a primary vendor for camshafts, valvetrain parts, and even professionally ported cylinder heads used in the fledgling AMC S/S racing program.
Their "test mule" was a nondescript, plain-white, AMC sedan, not the very sporty AMX coupes in which the race variety of the 390-cid V-8 was ultimately installed. It did have a professionally built roll cage and heavy-duty rear axle. The car was also equipped with a Borg-Warner T-10, four-speed manual trans connected to a Lakewood safety bellhousing.
The program created and proved the capabilities of the AMC race parts, which were intended to be NHRA and AHRA rules-legal for Super Stock racing. That meant each item had to carry an AMC factory part number and be available through the AMC dealership network for anyone to purchase.
As part of the program, Crane Cams provided 8620 steel-billet roller camshafts, roller lifters, valve springs, spring retainers, pushrods, roller-tip, needle bearing fulcrum, extruded aluminum rocker arms, and completely ported, AMC cylinder heads with big valves and legal components installed, ready for bolt on. Each of these components carried an official AMC part number and could be ordered through the AMC dealer network. Several different roller cam profiles were available, each with its own part number.
The components and tuning was eventually incorporated into the 390 AMX S/S racing program. These vehicles were purpose-built by Hurst Performance Corp., in their Royal Oak, Mich., short-run vehicle assembly-line facilities. AMC used the same Hurst facility that created those still remarkable 426 Hemi Dodge Dart and Plymouth Barracudas.
These race-bred AMXes carried 390-cid V-8 engines with all the AMC cataloged go-fast goodies. Included was a cross-ram, aluminum intake manifold and a pair of Holley four-barrel carburetors, tube steel headers, a heavy-duty rear axle, fiberglass front-end parts, and other select items engineered for the purpose of dominating the NHRA SS/C class.
To obtain one of those Hurst-built vehicles required prior success in serious drag racing, and of course you had to "know someone" to get your order included for the limited production run.
The AMX cars were reasonably successful in NHRA S/S and the new AHRA GT class. As expected, they encountered stiff competition from the many 426 Hemi and wedge-powered Dodge and Plymouth entries populating the S/S ranks. Still, much of what AMC's race folks learned through that initial program led them to greater success in early Pro Stock racing, most notably the Wally Booth-Dick Arons and Dick Maskin-Dave Kanners Hornets.
That winter season where AMC's race bunch occupied Crane Cams back shop and kept the Heenan-Froude dyno buzzing was indeed fun. It also served as an inside look at what even a minor player such as AMC could do when provided with reasonable funding and personnel targeting a specific drag racing goal.
You can read more about the AMX Super Stock program and see a ton of cool photos here (follow the History links on the left side of the page). There’s a list on this page of the original owners of the 52.
“If you had to compete with the three biggest car companies in America, what would you do?” This was the tagline on some American Motors television commercials back in the early 1970s, and it’s a valid question, for which AMC had some good ideas.
Strong engines like the 390 and 401 gave lots of power, and innovative (if not critically received) styling were part of the answer, but, let’s face it: It’s tough being an American Motors fan, believe me. Even though the Kenosha, Wis., car maker actually built some pretty nice (and fast) cars, it was always looking up to its “Big Three” brothers at General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, and so were its admirers. I mean, who would rather have a ’69 AMX when they could have a Z/28 or a Shelby Mustang? Sure, those AMXs came with a pretty stout 401 powerplant but nothing like the legendary engines from Chevy and Ford, especially when it came to aftermarket add-ons.
As I mentioned last week, my first hot rod was an AMC Javelin, and before that my stepfather had a '66 Marlin, a fastback-looking thing somewhat akin to the Dodge Chargers of the era. (In what I find a very amusing corollary, AMC designer Bob Nixon described the Marlin as "like trying to build a Corvette on a Buick sedan body. It just doesn't work" and dismissed the project as an "ugly embarrassment," yet a few years later, he designed the Gremlin. Ha!)
I don’t know that many Marlins made it to the dragstrip (I know of just one, the Preston Honea-driven ’65 Marlin that ran out of Bill Kraft’s Rambler dealership in Norwalk, Calif.), but there were quite a few racers who took advantage of the racy look of the AMC Javelin/AMX. As promised last week, here’s a look at some of the other wild American Motors machinery that hit the quarter-mile in the 1970s, focusing mostly on the nitro Funny Car ranks.
American Motors was among the last of the major manufacturers to abandon the Automobile Manufacturers Association’s 1957 decree that automakers not be involved in racing nor promote racing products for their cars (leading to the brief but popular “police” line of high-performance cars). Both Ford and Chevy had jumped ship from the mandate (created in the wake of the tragic 1955 LeMans accident that killed 77 people) in the early 1960s, and AMC, battling financial problems, finally joined the race in 1966 by creating the Grant Rebel program to gain exposure, publicity, and a performance image.
AMC Performance Activities Director Carl Chamakian instrumented a $1 million agreement in 1967 with Grant McCoon, owner of Los Angeles-based Grant Industries, a manufacturer of piston rings, ignition systems, and steering wheels, to build the Grant Rambler Rebel Funny Car to run in NHRA’s X/S (Experimental Stock) and S/XS (Super Experimental Stock) classes.
An AMC 343-cid engine was bored and stroked to 438 cubes by “Famous Amos” Saterlee and topped with a GMC 6-71 blower. Initially driven by "Banzai Bill” Hayes in June 1967, and painted red featuring a blue racing stripe with white stars, established star Hayden Proffitt soon took over the Grant Funny Car program. A new car was built in 1968 and renamed the Grant Rebel SST and painted in the new hash red, white, and blue AMC corporate racing colors.
Proffitt sold the car to Pat Johnson, and it was driven by 1970 March Meet winner Hank Clark. Clark was from Bell Gardens, Calif., and anything fast that came out of Bell Gardens in those days had a tie to the Beaver family, as apparently did Clark’s machine, but to what extent I’m not sure. It appears that they and Clark were part owners of the car that Ron Rosenberry also drove at times. I also found a listing for Illinois-based Kenny Dobson racing in Division 3 with a Grant Rebel SST Funny Car.
Thorley poses with his wild Javelin outside Orange County Int'l Raceway in early 1968.
While it wasn’t the first AMC Funny Car, one of the wildest to hit the track was the mid-engine Javelin 1 built for header manufacturer Doug Thorley by Woody Gilmore in 1968. Thorley was tapped by AMC for the project thanks to the success of his 1967 Indy-winning Corvair flopper.
At the time, the AMC Funny Car body of choice was the big-bodied Rebel and no aftermarket Javelin bodies existed, but the owner of Randall Rambler, an Arizona AMC dealer, also owned a boat business and used his fiberglass experience to make the body for Javelin 1.
Reath Automotive’s Gary Slusser was tapped to work on the engine, which AMC first demanded be based on their 390 wedge, but when that engine proved underpowered, they later converted to 392 Chrysler power. A dragster-style B&M Torkmaster automatic transmission was used.
Because the engine was underpowered, Thorley had the car built super light — 1,665 pounds wet — which, combined with the unusual configuration of the rear-engine car, may have contributed to the car’s spooky handling. Thorley initially drove his car, which Norm Weekly also piloted. Jim Dunn, who was between rides then (and, of course, would go on to become a big part of rear-engine Funny Car history), reportedly nearly drove the car, but he would have had to quit his job at the fire department, so he backed out. Bob Hightower finally flipped it over backwards in the lights at Irwindale Raceway in June 1969.
Thorley’s Javelin wasn’t the only one to meet a dramatic end. Future national event winner Bob Pickett had a Javelin Funny Car in 1969-70 that eventually took flight at Orange County Int’l Raceway seriously injuring him.
Pickett built the chassis in his garage, copying the frame designed by Pat Foster for Thompson's famous Mustangs right out of a magazine article. “We knew how long the chassis was, so we copied the design right out of the magazine,” he admitted. “We chalk-lined it on the garage floor, tacked it together, then had someone else weld it up. I did all the tinwork myself. I’d never built a car before that. I was just driven.”
Pickett cloaked his new creation with an AMC Javelin body, and the car flew … literally. After racking up an eye-opening best of 7.25 at 201 mph, the car took flight in the lights May 2, 1970, at Orange County Int’l Raceway’s Big 4 race.
“They said I was dangling the front tires off the ground at 800 feet, and then right in the lights, it went straight up,” recalled Pickett, who was knocked unconscious and suffered a broken back in the wreck. “It went as high as a telephone pole and went a long way and went into the guardrail. I was just telling myself, 'It's not my time.' "
As could be expected, AMC’s sport Javelin made an attractive and swoopy race car, and fans in the late 1960s could see them throughout Southern California.
After the failure of the rear-engine car, Dick Bourgeois and Earl Wade fielded the Javelin 2 in 1969-70, a Logghe-built entry powered by a 440-cid Chevy engine tuned by Earl Wade and sponsored in part by Thorley. Bourgeois and Wade had been running Thorley's second Corvair and updated the car to this Javelin, which ran on the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars circuit in 1969.
Gary Crane owned the Travelin' Javelin, a 426 Hemi-powered '69 AMC Javelin built by Ronnie Scrima at his Exhibition Engineering emporium that also was driven briefly by rising Funny Car shoe Dale Armstrong.
As the owner of fiberglass body manufacturer Fiberglas Trends, Marv Eldridge had his choice of bodies, and for three seasons, he ran the Javelin in a car driven quite successfully by SoCal’s Rusty Delling. The 392-powered machine scored several big wins, including the 1969 World News Nationals in Kansas City. Eldrige also had his own car, an AMX.
The Genuine Suspension AMX-1, which was owned by Jim Thomas and driven at times by Kenny DuBose, Tom Ferraro, and Gerry Walker, ran on a fuel altered chassis and powered by a 35 Chrysler Hemi. Clyde Morgan’s EXP Javelin was another Southern California machine, his built by Dick Fletcher and powered by a 427 Chevy, and future fuel dragster star Gary Read had the Nutcracker 392-powered Javelin (above).
AMCs weren’t limited to the Golden State; Texan Ken Hare had the Logghe-built 427 Chevy-powered Ramblin' Rose Javelin and Oregon’s Larry Palmer had the Can-Am Scorpion Javelin, both in 1969.
AMCs also enjoyed some time in the spotlight in Pro Stock in the mid-1970s, with Hornets driven by Wally Booth and partners Dick Maskin and Dave Kanners. As I wrote last week, Booth had the first AMC factory entry in 1972 but, after little success with a Gremlin, joined Maskin & Kanners in fielding a Hornet.
Booth earned AMC its historic first Pro win at the 1974 Gatornationals when he defeated Wayne Gapp in the final round and went on to add wins at the 1976 Springnationals, Grandnational, U.S. Nationals, Fallnationals, and World Finals en route to a third-place finish that season behind Larry Lombardo and Warren Johnson. (According to Insider regular Franklin Amiano, Booth used 392 Chrysler valve guides in his AMC engines. The stock AMC valves had 3/8 stems, but by using the 392 guides, he could run small-block Chevy valves with a 5/16 stem. They were the same length, used Chevy keepers, retainers and springs, and were an ounce lighter, which equals a pound of valvetrain weight [16 valves]).
That 1976 Finals at Ontario Motor Speedway may have been AMC’s single greatest day of drag racing as Booth defeated Kanners for the title. Kanners, the 1967 U.S. Nationals modified champ, never scored in Pro Stock but had two runner-ups, at the 1975 Gatornationals and the 1976 Finals.
Other Hornets in Pro Stock were driven by Missouri AMC dealer Brian Rodekopf, Maine’s Dave Street, and Pat Ulik, from AMC’s home state of Wisconsin.
AMC did score a pretty good publicity coup in the early 1970s when they wooed H.L. and Shirley Shahan to the AMC family. Shirley, of course, made NHRA history in her Drag-on Lady Mopar in 1966 when she became the first woman to win an NHRA national event (the Winternationals), but the Shahans, who raced out of the central California town of Tulare, had a flying 390-powered AMX Super Stocker in which they sometimes were able to compete in Pro Stock.
In an impressive feat, the couple actually qualified two AMXs for the 32-car Pro Stock field at the 1971 U.S. Nationals, at which more than 80 cars were entered. H.L. clocked a 9.892 for the No. 20 spot and Shirley a 10.006 for No. 31, but both lost in round one. Ironically, H.L. lost to Butch Leal, who had grown up in Pixley, not far from Tulare, and had run one of his first cars, a 409 ’62 Chevy, with Shahan’s help. Shirley lost her opening-round race to “Fast Eddie” Schartman’s Comet, and a woman would not win a round of NHRA Pro Stock competition until 21 years later, when Lucinda McFarlin became the first at the 1992 event in Memphis.
So, there you have it, a brief history of AMC cars in the NHRA Pro ranks. They had to compete with the three biggest car companies in America and did all right for themselves. Until next week, I’ll AMC-ya later.
“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.