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.

The PiranhaFriday, June 04, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

I don’t know where car companies come up with the names for their models. What's a Sephia? A Camry? Heck, for that matter, what's a Camaro, other than one of the most famous car names ever?

In the mid- to late 1960s, animal names were the hot ticket for car makers – Mustang, Beetle, Bronco, Cougar, Cobra, Road Runner, Impala, etc. – and even our aquatic friends were included. There's the famed Plymouth Barracuda, the Corvette Stingray, the rare AMC Marlin (one of which my stepfather owned) and, of course, the Piranha.

Everyone's heard of a piranha, right? The flesh-devouring curse of the Amazon River? A pack of the razor-fanged fishes is said to be able to strip a cow carcass to bones in minutes. To veteran drag race fans of the 1960s, the name evokes one of the wildest machines to traverse the quarter-mile, the AMT Piranha, and I present its story here as part of our wedge discussion because, well, it was kinda wedge shaped.

Although a lot of fans have heard of the AMT Piranha, not a lot realize that it had its roots as a street car. Yeah, go figure. Most people – yours truly included – think of it as a pure racing design, but it was in fact a marketing tool designed to showcase a limited-edition sports coupe being built by the AMT company, known to drag race model builders all over the globe for its long and varied line of 1/24th-scale drag cars.

Now, anyone who knows anything about 1960s automobiles knows that, if nothing else, they were heavy metal. Yet during the early 1960s, Marbon Chemical, a division of Borg-Warner, wanted to promote the expanded use of plastic, especially in automobiles. Remember that back then, even our soda bottles were made of real glass, not plastic, and plastic had a pretty small line of accomplishments.

The first CRV prototype, under construction
The Piranha SCCA sports car racer

Rather than try to weasel its way into the production line of the Big Four's cars – though Pontiac did use the material in the grilles of some of its '66 models -- the company decided to build its own car entirely of plastic (save for the running gear, of course), using a proprietary material called Cycolac, which to that point was being largely used in telephones. The company hired race car engineer Dann Deaver of Centaur Engineering to design a two-seater roadster with a rear-mounted Corvair engine. The car was built around one of Centaur's tubular race car frames and made its first public appearance at an SAE convention in Detroit in early 1965 under the acronym CRV, which stood for Cycolac Research Vehicle.

People loved the prototype, so Marbon commissioned Centaur to build a second one and decided that it should undergo its durability testing in motorsports, specifically on the SCCA circuit. The CRV-II exceeded all expectations and, with veteran driver Dick Carbijal at the wheel, even won its class that year, and its tough body even survived a wreck. After CRV-III was built and destroyed in mandated crash testing, the CRV-IV and V were built in early 1966 and included a coupe roof with gullwing doors. Both were sent overseas to promote the use of plastic at Marbon's foreign production facilities.

But Marbon never wanted to be a car manufacturer; it just wanted to sell plastic to someone who believed in the idea. Enter AMT Corp., whose thing definitely was plastic cars, albeit on a much smaller scale.

Car builder Fred Smith and the Piranha
The car made impressive shakedown runs at Irwindale Raceway.

AMT purchased the rights from Marbon to build the plastic car and bought its inventory of plastic bodies and fiberglass chassis. It hired noted California customizer Gene Winfield – who had been in the fold since 1962 helping design model cars -- to lead a team to design and build plastic sports cars at its new Speed & Custom Division, gave the car a new name -- the Piranha --and decided to promote the venture on the dragstrip.

Fred Smith, a former employee of none other than Don Garlits, was just 24 when he designed and built the chassis, which was wrapped in a body made of two pieces of vacuum-formed 3/16-inch Cycolac. An opening was cut in the nose to duct air through the body and over the cowl to keep the nose down. The car was painted a lemon gold color that blended to bronze farther down its flanks. Despite its dragster-like shape, the car was actually built to compete in Funny Car.

According to specs on a Piranha website, the bare chromoly frame was rigid to improve handling yet said to weigh just 68 pounds and featured a tubular front axle suspended by a transverse torsion bar. The Piranha had a 120-inch wheelbase, was 148 inches from snout to tail, and stood less than 40 inches high. Thanks to extensive use of aluminum and magnesium where plastic was not practical (mounts, pedals, fuel tank, etc.), the car weighed just 1,550 pounds race-ready.

Future Top Gas star Walt Stevens and wrench Joe Anahory, of Dead End Kids fame, got the call to campaign the wild machine. Anahory built a .030-over 392 Chrysler that was installed, mounted at eight degrees down – again to improve handling – topped by a 6-71 blower, and mated to a Schiefer dual-disc clutch and connected to a 1960 Olds rear end through a special Donovan coupler that allowed the engine to be as close to the rear end as possible.

In its debut at Southern California's Irwindale Raceway, Stevens shoed the car to an 8.81 at 182.64 mph, a speed that was claimed as "the fastest for any full-bodied vehicle," though one could argue the "full-bodied" part.

The team ran a full match race schedule, with multiple dates each week from May through September, and commanded top dollar to match race local stars or just make exhibition passes. And what’s not to like? The car made low-eight-second passes, smoking the tires past half-track, dragster-style. Despite its fleetness, the car handled superbly, thanks to all of the advance planning. “It drove like a Cadillac,” said Stevens. “I never had any problems at all.”

The car regularly ran 8.20s and 8.30s and speeds approaching 190 mph, with a reported best legitimate performance of 8.08 at 193 mph.

Shortly after the car hit the dragstrips, AMT released a 1/25th-scale version of the Piranha, kit No. 910. Winfield, who also had designed cars for the entertainment industry, used his contacts to get the Piranha big-time exposure on the TV series The Man from U.N.C.L.E. According to one report, "the original U.N.C.L.E. car was to be based on a Dodge Charger, but the network had second thoughts about giving them too much free advertising or perhaps cancelling their multimillion-dollar advertising campaign" and decided that a completely new car needed to be used. The car only appeared on a handful of shows in 1967.

In October 1966, after the contract with Stevens and Anahory ended, AMT briefly gave the car to Don Cook and Connie Swingle for an attempt at the first Funny Car run to exceed 200 mph. Although there were reports of a 200-mph pass, according to a story by Dave Wallace Jr., "Stevens remembers Swingle hitting 197 at Lions and believes that to be the car’s top speed ever."

AMT sold the Piranha, and it eventually ended up in the huge Harrah Collection in Reno, Nev., where it was stored for many years before being auctioned in 1986 for $6,500. The car was listed in the auction catalog thusly: "Poor overall condition ... not in running condition ... missing parts."

The car subsequently was resold for $8,000 in 1990 to Rich Riddell – Riddell beat out another interested bidder in Garlits, who had hoped to add it to his impressive Museum of Drag Racing -- who immediately began restoring the car but reportedly lost interest in the project for several years. He worked on it from 2001 until his death in November 2008. Riddell's widow put the car up for sale early the next year, and Garlits was finally able to acquire the car, which should be either finished or nearly finished.

Another great save by "Big Daddy."

What's a Camaro?
Back to my original point, I think this is interesting info regarding the Camaro from a Camaro history site. While Chevy labored on the car, its answer to Ford's extremely popular Mustang, "the car had been called  various names by GM and the press, including Nova, Panther, Chaparral, and Wildcat (later used by Buick). It is rumored that Chevy also considered using the letters 'GM' in the name and came up with G-Mini, which evolved into GeMini and finally Gemini. General Motors Headquarters supposedly killed that name because they didn't want the letters 'GM' used in case the car was a failure. Finally, the car was introduced to the press as the Camaro, considered to be a good name because nobody knew what it meant. Chevrolet produced an old French dictionary showing that the word meant 'friend' or 'companion,' but Ford found an alternate meaning in an old Spanish dictionary: "a small, shrimp-like creature.' The automotive press had a good laugh over that and an even bigger one when one journalist found yet another meaning: 'loose bowels.' "

Oh, those wacky journalists. You just can’t trust us to keep a straight face.

OK, that's the story of the Piranha (and some bonus Camaro trivia). Interesting stuff. Thanks for reading.


Where every day is Memorial DayTuesday, June 01, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Welcome to Tuesday, or, as many of you will know it, the first workday of this week. Me, I spent Memorial Day in the office working on this column and National DRAGSTER assignments, trying to get caught up before we launch into a June that will feature national events on four consecutive weekends.

I'm still working on the AMT Piranha piece I promised last week, and there's a lot more to it than I expected, but I hope to have it for you later this week. It's some cool stuff. In the meantime, here are some tidbits to keep you going.

Got a note last Wednesday from Bill Holland on the passing of famed entertainer Art Linkletter, which is of interest to everyone here because the former ND editor's Top Fueler once was sponsored by Linkletter and his Art Linkletter's House Party show.

Holland shared the photo at right, which shows Linkletter, center, his late daughter Diane, and Holland (kneeling by the car). Holland's partner and driver, John Guedel, is in the cockpit. The photo was taken at the 1968 Santa Claus Lane Parade down Hollywood Boulevard.

Guedel's father was the producer of the Linkletter show as well as Groucho Marx's popular You Bet Your Life. George Fenneman, who was Marx's sidekick and announcer, even came out to San Fernando Raceway to watch the car run, according to Holland. Linkletter never saw the car race, although Holland and Guedel did take the car to the studio when it was first painted.

(In a weird twist, as a child, Holland was featured on Linkletter's show – which included the popular segment "Kids Say the Darndest Things" -- in the early 1950s. "I was one of those wise-ass kids on the show," he said. "The first time was around 1951, and I was invited back for a couple more of his shows. Don't you think I was pumped having a limousine show up at school (Grant School in Hollywood) to take us to the then-new CBS Television City?")

The photo below shows the car better. It was taken in Oahu, Hawaii, where Holland and Guedel were match racing Stan Shiroma, who was driving the Top Fueler of German Farias (featured here previously in the F edition of the Misc. Files), at Hawaii Raceway Park. Holland and Guedel won the race and set the track record, which, Holland noted, was a nice feat because such hitters as Beebe & Mulligan and Tom McEwen had raced there.

Reader Kellen Kennedy, reacting to my comments about the aerodynamic devices – more precisely, "augmentation devices" -- attached to Gene Snow's Top Fueler, actually found video  from the Diamond P show from the 1986 NHRA Southern Nationals in which Steve Evans explained the magic behind the "tomato cans." You have to fast-forward to 4:20 for that, but before you get there, you can also see footage of Gary Ormsby's Castrol GTX streamliner, also reported on here. You can watch Ormsby battle Don Garlits' Swamp Rat XXX in the first meeting between the two streamliners.

For those of you who don't want to watch the video -- which I believe constitutes probably 0 percent – the theory is that the area between the cans and the headers would create a vacuum and more downforce. They claimed that they worked, but, because they quickly disappeared, I'm guessing that they didn't work well enough for whatever upkeep was necessary. That has probably been the bane of many drag racing innovations: too much effort for too little reward.

In the course of working on articles for National DRAGSTER, I stumbled across a couple of items in old issues that relate to previous postings here about the Buttera/Setzer monocoque car and Sammy Miller's wedge dragster. Both appeared in the Bits From The Pits column. If you're new around here, I have NDADD (National DRAGSTER Attention Deficit Disorder), so the simple task of doing one piece of research for one specific item sends me thumbing through an entire issue looking for cool stuff. Anyway, the first, from July 1972, noted that Dwight Salisbury was chosen by car builder John Buttera to drive the monocoque car. If you remember, Buttera and Louie Teckenoff built the car and had hoped to campaign it themselves but sold it to Setzer when the financial realities of doing such finally hit home.

The item went on to note that "a whole flock of subframe cars" were under construction at Race Car Specialties, including one to be driven by Larry Dixon Sr. as part of the Real Don Steele team. Southern California-based RCS, of course, was the San Fernando Valley workshop of ace chassis builder Frank Huszar. Wonder whatever became of these "subframe" cars.

The Miller note I found talked about that car's construction and offered that the wheelbase was to be 195 inches and, of true interest, that the engine was going to be 58 inches out (from the rear end), which is more like Funny Car territory, which dovetails with what Scott Weney told us about how Miller, a flopper veteran, wanted a familiar setup.

Back to the monocoque car -- thanks to a reader, I was able to contact Teckenoff by e-mail. He said he has a "rather detailed series of photos taken when the car was being built," that the car's initial runs were made at Lions Drag Strip and not Orange County Int’l Raceway, and other interesting tidbits that he asked not be disclosed before he can flesh them out. Rest assured, I'll be back in touch with him.

OK, that's it for today. I'll see ya later this week.

All wedges, all the time ...Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Ho hum. Another week, and still more loose threads from the wedge discussion. Sorry for today's late-week posting and that this will be the week's only entry; the work overload on National DRAGSTER has been smothering with no letup in sight, but I wanted to keep the engine running, so to speak.

I have some follow-up on the Dunn & Kruse "Top Fueler" mentioned here last time after exchanging e-mails with Kruse, and I plan to give him a call.

Below is an interesting photo of the "two cars" on the track. There were not two chassis, but rather this is a clever double exposure by Barry Wiggins, taken at OCIR after the Grand Am event (and after the dragster body was painted).

Kruse had been sharing information on the car with the nostalgia-oriented Standard 1320 newsgroup, and I asked permission to reprint his comments here, which he granted. Some of what he said backs up Jim Dunn's comments but with more detail about the actual construction of the car and its rather rushed-into-service nature.

"This version was not meant to be the ideal streamliner; it made use of 'available material' in the form of the Dunn & Reath car with the Funny Car body removed. Initially, the unit was to be used as a plug to make a mold, then lightweight parts were to be built for a competition body. When it was announced that the Jocko/Garlits streamliner would be at OCIR, a decision was made to finish the mock-up unit and race it. It was a little heavier than preferred, but we were inspired by the drama of TWO streamliners at one event.

"The center body between the wheels is .060 aluminum," he wrote. "The fenders were first shaped from block urethane foam, then covered with three layers of fiberglass, riveted on the overlap. The front and rear active control wings are aluminum. The streamliner body was at the racetrack, on the chassis, and qualified for eliminations 17 days after construction started.

"The whole episode was very exciting," he remarked. "The best thing I learned is that the market for streamlined dragsters is very small."

Reader Robert Flitsch offered up "another fire starter for the dreaded wedge discussion" – his description, not mine – with this photo of a black Top Fueler. I recognized the name on the cockpit – Donnie – as probably being Southwest racer Donnie Souter, which I verified through checking the permanent number on the car (480) against other shots of Souter's car. When I first opened this pic, I thought, "Well, that's the Sammy Miller car," but upon closer examination, it's not the same car. Close, but not quite. Miller's car had an enclosed back end, and this one clearly does not. This car also appears to be longer than the Miller car and has a different nosepiece. The Houston-based Souter clan ran Top Fuelers for about 10 years, from the early 1970s to early 1980s, and I'm guessing this photo was a mid-1970s effort.

I've been inundated with suggestions of other "wedge" cars, some of which probably fit loosely in the category and others that don't. Mike Gayowski suggested Gary Ormsby's streamliner, Gene Snow's mid-1980s Top Fueler, and Joe Amato's wingless Top Fueler. With Ormsby's car – which the team billed as a streamliner – I'm almost more convinced to call it a wedge. Again, to me, a streamliner would have an enclosed front end (which his 1986 car did not, but the next version did to a degree) and an enclosed cockpit, which his did not, though it certainly was part of the bodywork. Amato's car was more precisely a ground-effects car; it was his conventional car minus the wind but with a tunnel under the chassis. I saw it make one run in Houston, and it seemed to run just fine, but to my knowledge, that was the only time that he ran it. Amato did also briefly have a streamliner, but I don't think that's what Mike is referencing. Robert Sutton, son of Hall of Fame starter Larry, asked about Cyril Leon's Top Alcohol Dragster from the 1980s. It's a car that I remember seeing, too, but cannot find in our files.

Snow's car, on the other hand, looked like a modern-day wedge. I found this photo from the 1987 Allstars event in Dallas. He didn't qualify there, but the caption said that this was his existing Gene Gaddy-built dragster with the bodywork added and not a from-scratch car. Looking through Snow's file, his dragster underwent a dizzying array of changes and accoutrements, including cockpit canopies, canard wings, and such. I even remember – but cannot find photos of -- crazy devices attached to the headers to increase downforce.

Combing through older e-mails, I found photos that our old pal Steve Reyes sent that show the restoration of the famed AMT Piranha "Funny Car" that was more a wedge Top Fueler than anything as you can see from the photo here, which Reyes took about a month ago.

I've been a little reluctant to head backward in time with the wedge discussion because a) this disucssion originally centered around early-1970s "true" wedge dragsters and b) I'm not sure what worms will crawl from that can, but after poking around a little and reading up on the history of this car, which ran in 1966 and whose roots came from an actual limited-edition production car made of plastic material and whose street-driven "brother" appeared in the 1960s TV spy show The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I think it's definitely worth sharing, which I will do next week.

Until then ...

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