If you are a fan of the Funny Car class – and hey, who isn’t? – the 2015 season was a spectacular one, not just for its dramatic finish on the final day of the schedule last Sunday in Pomona, but also for scoreboard watchers.
Consider this: The quickest run in Funny Car entering 2015 was 3.959, recorded by Cruz Pedregon at the 2014 Englishtown event. We finished this season with Matt Hagan’s 3.879 as the all-time quickest pass. That’s a drop of eight-hundredths of a second. And Pedregon’s run was bettered not just once or twice, or a dozen times, but – get this – 82 times during this season. I was there when Pedregon ran that .95, and believe me, we all about fell out of our chairs. Today, people don’t exactly yawn at a 3.95, but the grading has gotten pretty steep, and 245 threes have been recorded since Hagan’s barrier-busting run in Charlotte in the fall of 2011.
Consider also that the national record entering 2015 was set at the 2014 Circle K NHRA Winternationals and survived that entire season and half of this season, then was reset an amazing seven times in the second half of the year and ended up with Jack Beckman at 3.884. That’s another drop of eight-hundredths.
It was Beckman, of course, who got the whole performance binge started in Sonoma in late July, when crew chief Jimmy Prock adjusted the header angle (and a few other magic things) to turn the Infinite Hero Dodge into a rocket ship with a 3.921 blast followed by a 3.912 in Seattle and a 3.901 in Brainerd – remember, all of this took place in the span of three races in four weekends – and then Hagan broke another barrier with a 3.879, also in Brainerd (amazing in itself because it’s an altitude track, albeit with tremendous conditions that weekend).
What makes all of this really impressive to me is that, as you can imagine, the quicker you go, the exponentially harder it is to go even quicker. Picking up eight-hundredths when you run in the sixes is a whole lot easier than picking up six-hundredths when you run in the threes.
But you don’t come here to read about the current season; that’s what you have National Dragster for. As always here, I like to look at things through rose-tinted nostalgia glasses. So, just as all of this performance rush was really taking off – and would get more incredible as the season progressed – I chatted in Indy with Dave Fletcher, Don Schumacher Racing’s track specialist, to marvel at the quick progression we had been seeing. “Can you remember another time when this happened?” he asked me, and at the time, I couldn’t come up with the examples, but now I can.
Here are some interesting stats to mull over.
Don Prudhomme had the first Funny Car in the fives at the final event of 1975 and no one else ran in the fives until Raymond Beadle at the 1978 U.S. Nationals.
Leroy Goldstein and the Ramchargers team were the kings of Funny Car e.t.s in the early 1970s.
Dale Pulde, near lane, powered Mickey Thompson’s sleek Revelleader Grand Am to a 6.16 national record to defeat Don Prudhomme in round two of the 1974 World Finals and hand the season championship to Shirl Greer.
It took just two years and a few months to get eight drivers into the threes. By comparison, it took more than twice that long -- five and a half years (Don Prudhomme, Oct. 12, 1975, to Tripp Shumake, April 25, 1981) -- for eight drivers to run in the fives. Heck, it took almost three years for Raymond Beadle to be the second driver in the fives. What does that say about today’s parity? Or about how badass “the Snake” was back then?
More recently, it took three and a half years (Chuck Etchells, Oct. 1, 1993, to Whit Bazemore March 22, 1997) to get eight drivers into the four-second zone.
I went back to look at other seasons to see when great performance strides had taken place, and there were quite a few. Consider 1971. Entering the season, the best official Funny Car pass (and the national record) was 6.83, run by Leroy Goldstein in the Ramchargers Challenger in Indy 1970, just a few months after becoming the first in the sixes. Early the next season, Goldstein bettered his own mark by more than a tenth with a 6.71 at the Gatornationals. Goldstein couldn’t back up that number for a new record but did later that year with a 6.80 after moving into the Candies & Hughes machine. Low e.t. of the season was credited to Bill Leavitt, who stunned everyone with a 6.48 at Lions in December of that year and also ran 6.51 and 6.53 the same weekend to dispel any doubters. So, that’s a drop of three-and-a-half-tenths in one year; pretty impressive.
(A quick caveat: All of the e.t.s that I am citing (and will cite) are considered legit by the Funny Car cognoscenti and dismiss some pretty outrageous “popcorn” times dished out at match race tracks with either inaccurate timing systems or overzealous race promoters and track operators.)
Although racers chipped away at Goldstein’s 6.80 record throughout 1972 -- Gary Burgin (6.72, Lions), Leroy Chadderton (6.66, Seattle), Kenney Goodell (6.58, Spokane), Larry Fullerton (6.56, Warner Robins, Ga.), and Sush Matsubara (6.49, Lions) -- Leavitt’s stunning number was not bettered until Bobby Rowe ran 6.38 at Maryland’s Capitol Raceway that summer. Pat Foster capped the season with a 6.29 in the Barry Setzer Vega at the Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway. So, there’s nearly two-tenths.
It was a full year before Foster’s 6.29 was bettered, and that didn’t happen until the final race of the 1973 season, the Supernationals, where Prudhomme fired off a where-did-that-come-from 6.16 with his trusty Barracuda that wasn’t matched for a whole season until Dale Pulde powered Mickey Thompson’s Revelleader Grand Am to a matching number at the World Finals, although Pulde backed up his .16 for the national record, bettering the 6.19 mark that Billy Meyer had established in Indy. And of course, at the next year’s World Finals, Prudhomme broke into the fives with his 5.98.
So, two more thoughts here: Funny Car racers chip nearly seven-tenths of a second off the class-best run from 1971 to 1973 yet don’t improve it by even a hundredth in 1974, then pick up eight-hundredths in 1975? How weird is that? Dear 1974: What happened?
Second, the back-to-back-to-back best of the season all happened at OMS, further cementing its legacy as one of the best performance-coaxing dragstrips – if not the best – in history.
Raymond Beadle was second into the fives at Indy 1978 but would become the first in the 5.80s two years later in Englishtown.
As mentioned, it took nearly three years before Beadle was even the second racer in the fives, and from the end of 1975 until the end of 1979, only Prudhomme was able to better his barrier-breaking (but not backed-up) 5.98, running 5.97 (the first sub-six national record) in Indy in 1976 and 5.95 at the 1979 U.S. Nationals.
So, again, we have four seasons, from 1971 through 1974, when the record books are substantially rewritten, then a performance drought that lasts four years? Weird, right?
The 1980 season opened promisingly, with Prudhomme and the Army Arrow setting the national record in Gainesville with a 5.93 in the semifinals (backed up by a second-round 5.94), but it was newly crowned world champ Beadle who blew everyone away that summer with a spellbinding 5.86 from the Blue Max Arrow at the Summernationals.
So, four seasons with no significant improvement and then a drop of nearly a tenth in 1980? Then, oddly enough, no one bettered Beadle’s .86 in 1981, though Beadle did match that number, weirdly enough, again at the Summernationals.
Are you with me so far? OK, here’s where it gets really weird. Two words: Indy 1982.
Bernstein shocked the troops later in 1986 with a 5.42 at Texas Motorplex.
Beadle’s 5.86 was not bettered until 1982, when Meyer nudged it down to 5.82 (again in E-town; remember, at the time, only the Summernationals held night qualifying sessions), but those marks got destroyed in Indy, where Tom Anderson ran 5.79 and Prudhomme 5.73, and then, of course, Prudhomme dropped jaws across the world with a staggering 5.63. Boom! An improvement of more than two-tenths in one year. (I wrote a whole column on that race and that run three years ago; read it here.)
Prudhomme’s 5.63 was not bettered for two and half years, until the 1985 Winternationals, when Rick Johnson shoed Roland Leong’s wind-tunnel-refined Dodge to a 5.58, which was one-upped later that year by Kenny Bernstein’s 5.56 in his aero-slick Bud King Tempo in the incredible air at the inaugural NHRA Keystone Nationals in Reading.
The 1986 season introduced the lockup clutch to the sport, cloaked in secrecy inside the Bud King until a solo pass at the U.S. Nationals revealed the telltale downtrack engine-pitch change that allowed Bernstein and crew chief Dale Armstrong to run a devastating 5.50 and, a few weeks later, a bombshell 5.42 at Texas Motorplex.
So, if you’re keeping score, Funny Cars went from a 5.63 best entering the 1985 season to a 5.42 best two seasons later. Two-tenths in two years.
By the end of 1987, Ed McCulloch had the best number, a 5.36, again recorded at the Motorplex (the new OMS, it seems), and “the Ace” also made the best run of 1988, a 5.25 in Houston. Prudhomme broke into the five-teens in Indy in 1989 (5.17), a number that was not bettered until Jim White punched Leong’s Dodge through the Motorplex timers with a 5.14 a year later, a run that was not bettered for two years, until Pedregon and Larry Minor’s McDonald’s Olds ran 5.10 in Houston in 1992 and 5.07 in Reading later that year.
The 1992 season is well-remembered for the leap in cylinder-head and ignition technology led by Bernstein and Armstrong that resulted in their 300-mph Top Fuel run in Gainesville. And before long, others were catching on. In 1993, Chuck Etchells broke into the fours in Topeka with a 4.98. By 1996, John Force had set the record at 4.88 and three years later set it again at 4.79. It took until 2004 for the record to reach the 4.60s (Force again, in Chicago, with a 4.66), but the record didn’t budge much from there before quarter-mile racing ended following the loss of Scott Kalitta.
Intrigued by all of this, I called Austin Coil, the architect of Force’s glory years – and the guy who inadvertently gave Armstrong the idea for a lockup clutch – who has retired from tuning but still avidly watches the action, for his historic overview of the seismic shifts in performance, beginning with this season.
“The reason behind this year’s performance increase – laying the headers back -- is so obvious that we all are just looking at each other going, ‘How the [heck] could we not have tried that?’ " he mused. “Cruz Pedregon had them tilted back like that for years, and occasionally he would run really quick on slippery tracks, and we didn’t really understand how he could be ridiculously good under those conditions. We had no clue.”
What’s really interesting about this header design is that it goes against everything that most teams thought. For years, everyone considered the massive downward thrust (3,000 to 5,000 pounds, according to Coil) coming out of the headers as a way to help plant the cars for better traction, but what the teams have newly discovered is that the forward thrust offered by the laid-back headers is more effective in getting the cars going than the better traction offered by the upturned headers, especially on a slippery track. This also means that teams no longer need to max out their rear wings for the launch, a setting that slows the cars at the other end of the track.
The sheer number of performance innovations throughout the years – from wrinkle-wall tires to improved transmissions (and then direct-drive) and clutches, high-flow (and multiple) fuel pumps, programmable ignition timing, improved magnetos, high-flow cylinder heads, setback blowers, better aero packages, slip-tube chassis, et al – have pushed the performances to where they are, but it wasn’t always a bandwagon jump like we’ve seen with the headers craze of this year, probably because of the relative low cost to make the change.
Some things, like the iridium points in Bernstein’s magnetos that reportedly cost $10,000 per set, were financially out of reach for many teams. When Coil hatched the idea for the lockup clutch, Force’s team didn’t have the money to develop it (“We didn’t even have the money to pay for our diesel fuel back then,” he said), but Bernstein did, and they had one months before anyone else did.
While Coil has seen it all come and go throughout the years, when I asked him for the most memorable and forehead-slapping change he remembers seeing, it had nothing to do with performance.
“In the early 1970s, we were at a match race with the Ramchargers, and they had put a pipe from the [valve-cover] breathers that ran out the back of their car to keep the oil off of the engine,” he recalled. “The first thing I thought of is, ‘Why the [heck] didn’t we think of that?’ It was so obvious. How many years had we been silver-taping rags over the breathers and front-motor dragster guys were wiping oil off of their goggles going down the racetrack?
“If you look back in history, kings used to warm their castles with a huge bonfire in the middle of the room, and they would cut big holes in the ceiling to let the smoke out. It took them 300 years to come up with the idea of a fireplace and a chimney.
"Just like in racing, sometimes some things just don’t seem so obvious until they are.”
Don Prudhomme, left, and National Dragster's Leslie Lovett, two-wheelin' it
Fred Mooneyham’s brief mention last week about dirt-bike riding with his nitro peers in the 1970s and motocross racing against fellow 1970s Top Fuel driver Don Moody at Irwindale sent me scurrying through old emails and saved snippets of tales from days gone by to dig up correspondence I’d had with Moody on the subject a half-dozen years ago.
After a few minutes, I found my notes and enjoyed the tone and liked the thought of those bygone days, so I thought it would make an interesting column, another of those nostalgic “How cool were the ‘70s?” vibes with an off-track twist.
As I dug deeper and expanded the scope of my interviews to include fellow riders Don Prudhomme and Tommy Ivo and more long-distance chats with Moody, I tapped into a vein of wonderful memories and camaraderie that these guys and their peers shared on the desert excursions. Prudhomme and Ivo very generously dug through their scrapbooks for photos, and I made up for the lack of images for certain stories by enlisting the talented pen and fertile mind of ND's own John Jodauga to "re-create" the scenes with cartoons. Good stuff.
As we're all aware, the 1970s was a different time for drag racing, and not just because the nitro cars had transmissions and the drivers wore breather masks and open-face helmets. There was a genuine sense of community and Band of Brothers mentality that only is forged in the fires of all-night tows to match race tracks and seeing each other not just every other weekend but sometimes three or four nights a week. Some of the racers today, of course, are friends off the track and do things together – thanks to the centralized hub of the drag racing world in Brownsburg, Ind. – but it’s a different world. That’s not a knock on today’s professionals. After all, compared to their 1970s counterparts, the pressures are different, the schedule is different, the political climate is different, and the obligations are different.
In the 1970s, NHRA could get away with not only dreaming up the somewhat hokey idea of a pre-Winternationals roller-skating party, but also having all of the sport’s big guns actually show up and skate. Can you picture that today? Me either. There was no media opportunity (other than National Dragster), yet everyone was there, and the proverbial good time was had by all. Different times, different world.
The dirt-biking phenomenon had hit pretty big then, and the first stadium motocross events created heroes like Roger DeCoster, Jim Pomeroy, Brad Lackey, and Bob “Hurricane” Hannah. Drag racing’s heroes were all over it.
Southern California-based guys like Moody and Mooneyham, along with Prudhomme, Kenny Safford and partner Don Gaide, Ed Janke, Ivo (all five friends from their days as members of the Burbank Road Kings), and a wild and varied assortment that included Funny Car racer Sush Matsubara, chassis builder Lil John Buttera, engine ace Ed Pink, Don and Bob Spar (of B&M fame), National Dragster’s own Leslie Lovett, and many others would load up their Husqvarnas, Bultacos, Montesas, Maicos, Yamahas, and CZs and head out to the hinterlands so tantalizingly close to LA: the high desert just north of Pomona, Jawbone Canyon, Holiday Mountain, Hi Vista, Red Rock Canyon, publishing magnate Robert E. Petersen’s ranch in Tehachapi, or even the man-made motocross mecca at Indian Dunes near Valencia. Whenever there was a spare weekend, they’d ride together, laugh, and try not to get hurt.
“Man, those were the days,” Prudhomme reflected, warming to the recollection when we spoke earlier this week. “If we weren’t drag racing, we were riding. The guys would come by my house and pick me up, or we’d all meet somewhere. We’d go out there, get it on, then lay under a tree and smoke a cigarette and shoot the [breeze]. We were all great friends, and we rode the hell out of our bikes. We’d ride hard, and by the time we got home, we were sore and beat up; we were pouring people into the bathtubs for a hot soak.”
“Those were great times in life with great friends; I had just as much fun dirt biking as drag racing,” Moody enthused via email, from his home in Thailand. “Throughout life (if you live long enough) you compile endless memories, but dirt biking in the desert is indelible in my head. There’s not many times do you get to spend time with great friends on the edge of disaster, whether it was on the dragstrip or tearing across the desert.”
And the stories … oh, man. Here’s a sampling of some of the great and wild times that they experienced.
While many of his peers were riding 360cc CZs, Huskys, or Bultacos, Moody, in typical drag racer style, had hot-rodded his Montesa to run straight alcohol. “Jack Engle calculated all the necessary jetting for the alcohol versus the gasoline, and the air-cooled engine loved the alcohol,” recalled Moody, who then worked at Engle Cams with longtime partner Wes Cerny. “I had a new steel tank (it melted the fiberglass one), a new 36mm Bing carburetor, nice new fenders; it looked like new money, but it burned fuel like a dragster. The first day in the desert, I remember Prudhomme kept badgering me to let him ride it. Well, he rolled out on a fire road, shifted to 2nd gear, and proceeded to roll right over backwards. It didn't even hurt the ‘slithering Snake’ but ruined both of my new fenders and dented my steel tank. All he could say was how impressed he was with the power. Huh!
As on the dragstrip, "the Snake" took no prisoners. Here he smokes it up a hill after blasting past one of his riding pals.
“At one of our early get-togethers in the Holiday area, Safford, Gaide, Janke, Prudhomme, myself, and some others were more or less in line and following too close and way too fast. Safford went into a washout with all of us right behind. Prudhomme passed me in the raw desert and crossed in front, right over Safford's right shoulder. The reason I remember this so vividly is that Safford was wearing a new bright yellow Engle Racing Cams jacket; when we got back to camp, Prudhomme tried to say he had clearly missed everyone, but Safford had a giant knobby track across his right shoulder on his new jacket! The word ‘Lift’ was just not in our vocabulary, and ‘the Snake’ was going for the finish line.”
I asked Prudhomme – who, by the way, had always been the king of those roller-skating parties, having raced on skates at the Rainbow Roller Rink in the San Fernando Valley as a teen, before his drag racing days – if he had been as good on two wheels as he was on four.
"Yeah, I could hold my own, but everyone was good, except 'the Mongoose,' " he said, unable to resist the chance to once again poke fun at his old buddy Tom McEwen. “He would show up and look like a drugstore cowboy – the best motorcycle you could buy, the best pair of leathers, the best jacket – but he just couldn’t ride to save his life.
“Moody was awfully good,” he added. “You knew who was good when you’d be riding hard, look back, and see who was still with you, and Moody was always there.”
Moody, too, had a good “Snake” and “Mongoose” story to tell.
“I can remember when McEwen came to the desert with us for the first time (he should have stayed home),” recalled Moody. “The bike he had borrowed (from Don Gaide) quit in the middle of nowhere. ‘The Snake’ and I made our way back to the truck and proceeded to go back for ‘the ‘Goose.’ It started raining like the devil, and it was already dark, and what road we had looked like a river. Prudhomme kept saying, ‘Turn around; he's not going to be out here; let's get out of here before we're stuck,’ but I kept going to the spot where I thought he was. I was losing confidence fast, and Prudhomme was yelling, ‘We gotta get outta here!’ and finally, here's the ‘Drowned ‘Goose,’ huddled under the same mesquite bush, right where we had left him. History would surely have changed that rainy Sunday had we left him in the desert.”
As with all things mechanical, trouble usually reared its ugly head.
“If we had seven guys, it would take two hours to get ‘em all lit,” Moody recalled. “It was always a feat in itself to be able to get seven or eight two-strokes fired up anywhere near the same time. Ed Janke had a 175cc Bultaco Sherpa that wouldn't start with the kick-starter. We had to tow him all over the desert to get it to light, then, after it warmed up, he had to change the spark plug to a cooler one or it would burn up the engine on the ride. I remember John Buttera was too light to start his Husky; he had to take the plug out and squirt fire starter in the cylinder to start the bike.”
From left, Prudhomme, Don Moody, Tommy Ivo, Kenny Safford, and Billy Record at Holiday. It was Ivo's first (and last) trip.
It may have taken a while to kick-start some of those bikes, but my prodding email to Ivo proved he didn’t need any warm-up time to start reminiscing about those desert days.
“Going to the desert to ride bikes with a bunch of lop-eared fuel dragster drivers was my first mistake,” he wrote with his typical flourish. “They don't call them ‘murder-cycles’ for nothing, you know. And then putting them in the hands of a bunch of ‘accidents looking for a place to happen’-type guys like that was a volatile combination at best.
(Above) Ivo's first ride didn't last long after a collision with Safford (below), who came away dirty and dusty but otherwise unharmed.
“On one Saturday night at Lions, Prudhomme walked up to me and said they'd just found something to do that was like being able to drive your dragster for miles on end, and it doesn't even kick the rods out when you stand on it, either. Hmmmmm … sounded good to me I thought, and the hook was set! I ran right out and bought myself a brandy-new, badass, top-of-the-line Husqvarna that I was told was the gold standard of dirt bikes at the time. And I wasn't going to have anyone kicking sand in my face if I went out with them!
“The first barrier that I had to overcome was that those Looney Toons-ers were up and at ‘em on the way to the desert just as the sun was starting to come up. Talk about a huge culture shock, between world time and Ivo time, because that was my normal ‘vampire time’ for going to bed. They said it was cooler out there in the morning time. Yee gods, man! It was in the middle of winter, and it was so cold out there that my nose turned white.
“We were getting the bikes unloaded, and I donned my many layers of sweaters and a fleece-lined, heavy-duty leather jacket. When you’re 120 pounds, you don't have much insulation to ward off the frosty winter desert air. I always had a tenth of a second on anyone driving the same dragster because of my jockey size, so I theorized that it would become even more of an advantage on a smaller vehicle like a bike, and I was all set to kick ass and take names.
So, while they were all finishing getting things ready, I rode out away from where we parked the trucks to get a feel of the bike. And I noticed Kenny Safford making a big circle swing around on the flat area and was coming right at me. So I thought, ‘OK, he's going to drive up next to me and have a little drag race.’ WRONG! For some strange unknown reason, he just kept on coming at me and plowed right into the side of me! Didn't he realize a motorcycle’s front wheel loses in a confrontation with the side of another bike in a collision?
“After everyone got done running around in circles like a Chinese fire drill for a few minutes, we all decided Kenny was going to live, and we were off and at ‘em once again. Then Prudhomme came up with the bright idea of climbing up the side of the hill that was running along next to us and says to me, ‘Follow me!’ Now, I'd not realized yet that he was trying to kill me one way or another and followed along like an obedient little puppy dog on a leash. BUT -- and here comes that ‘but’ again -- halfway up the hill, I stalled my bike -- Great! Just to add insult to injury, I almost didn't have enough lard in my ass to kick-start the bike on flat ground, let alone on the side of a hill. When that two-stroke motor kicked back while starting it, it would throw me right over the handlebars.
“So the ‘evil Snake’ (remember how much trouble an evil snake got us all into in Garden of Eden?) says to me, as he reeled me in, ‘Point the bike downhill, and I'll give you a little shove off and just pop the clutch to get it started.’ Right! And I bought it hook, line, and sinker. When I popped the clutch and the engine came to life, can you imagine how fast that damn thing accelerated downhill? And off I went, full-tilt boogie down the hill doing cartwheels -- front wheel, back wheel, front wheel, back wheel -- yelling ‘Ouch, ouch, ouch, ouch’ every time I ended up on the bottom side as it rolled over and over all the way to the bottom of the hill.
“I went home and sold the bike the next day!”
As Ivo alluded, injuries were inevitable. The most notorious of the casualties was Matsubara, who broke an arm and a leg in a crash just days before the 1975 Winternationals and had to turn the seat of Joe Pisano’s Funny Car over to a replacement driver. Famed car owner Roland Leong, one of Matsubara’s good friends, told me earlier this week that Matsubara knew he was in trouble when his left leg was over his right shoulder. “They had to drive the truck a little ways into the desert and use the ramps they used to load the bike to put him in the back of the truck to take him to the hospital,” he recalled. “He never raced again.”
According to Moody, that wasn’t the first brush with two-wheel wounds for Matsubara, who often rode with longtime friend Glen Okazaki (who had been partners on a Funny Car with Leroy Chadderton and worked on both the Pisano car and the famed Mondello & Matsubara Fiat), Okazaki’s brother, Richie, and Mikio Yoshika, who worked with Chadderton at Precision Products in Pomona, then one of the premier machine shops in the nitro world.
“I remember when I first coaxed Sush to buy a dirt bike and come to the desert,” Moody recalled. “He must have had six or eight friends. On our first ride at Holiday, I was trying to show them the trail. I climbed to a ‘razorback ridge’ and stopped. When I looked back, there was nothing but a cloud of dust approaching me like a tornado. Over the ridge was blind and a big drop-off. I got off my bike and started waving my arms and shouting, ‘Stop! Stop!’ as loud as I could; what a joke! First it was Sush, who didn't pay any attention to me. Crash, bang, boom down into the chasm over the ridge. I'm still waving my arms trying to get the rest to stop; just a waste of time. When the dust cleared, there was nothing but Japanese piled in the gulley.
“I'm yelling at Sush, asking why he didn't stop. Through his bloody lips, covered with sand and dirt, he very calmly says, ‘You don't expect us to take orders from a "Yankee Running Dog," do you?’ Sush was the commander, and they didn't listen to anyone else. We had a good time together, and we were best friends, but from that day forward, I didn't try to tell his guys anything.”
For all of his tales of everyone else’s woes, Moody was not immune to injuries himself.
“I was riding with Safford, Gaide, Prudhomme, and a couple of others,” he shared. “All the guys were on a fire road, and I was out in the desert zipping along. I sailed over a berm, and my front wheel left the fork tubes -- not good. I somersaulted in the air and landed flat on my butt. I had a bruised tailbone and had to sit on a rubber-cushioned donut for over a year at work.”
(Nor is Moody out of harm’s way these days. He has traded in motorized two-wheelers for high-dollar road bicycles and flirted with disaster about a month ago when he ran head-on into another rider on a blind corner. “I did what we call a ‘Flying W’ over the handlebars,” he related. “I managed to fracture some ribs, tore a piece in an oblique muscle, and knocked down my shoulder. It's taken about six weeks to recover some rhythm and breathing, and still have considerable pain at times, but at 75, I don't heal as quickly as when I was 25. The only consolation to the mishap was my nice Klein [bicycle] hardly got a scratch.”)
Bangs and bruises notwithstanding, everyone seemed game each time the call of the wild was sounded, and no one was more eager than Moody, even if it meant a little cajoling of his pal Prudhomme.
“Prudhomme’s words still ring in my ears: ‘Moody! This is the last time I'm going to let you drag me out here; you've led me astray the last time,’ then I'd wait until Wednesday evening or Thursday the next week, give him a call; he'd say, ‘Well, OK,’ and we would be out doing the same thing again,” Moody recalled with a laugh. “With me in Santa Monica and him in Granada Hills, [his house] was on the way to the desert. I look back at those times, and though they were glimpses of memories, at the time, the experiences were all-consuming, just like the look on Prudhomme's wife’s face as we drove out of his driveway -- her with a frown and hands on hips -- she looked like I was taking him to storm the beaches of Normandy. I don't think I was real popular with Lynn.
“Twenty years ago or so, Wes Cerny mentioned to Prudhomme that I might come back to America and would he like to test the desert one more time? I understand that ‘the Snake’s’ reaction was, ‘Hell no, and I don't even want to see his picture.’ I loved the guy, and I can't remember in my life having more fun than drag racing unless it was dirt biking in the desert with all those yahoos."
Teenage Fred Mooneyham with his father, Gene, and crewmember Larry Faust.
(Above) Mooneyham cut his teeth in a front-engine Top Fueler in Louisiana. (Below) Mooneyham and brother Gene Jr. later added a wing above the cockpit.
(Above) The California Cajun Top Fueler was a consistent runner when the family returned to California. (Below) In the 1972 OCIR winner's circle, from left, are Gene Jr., Dorothy, and Fred Mooneyham, race queen Candi Herfurth, Gene Mooneyham Sr., Larry Faust, and Stan Shiroma.
A dejected Mooneyham pushes back the California Cajun after it banged the blower in qualifying at the 1972 Supernationals.
Mooneyham, far lane, upset heavily favored James Warren in the semifinals of the California Pro Circuit event in Bakersfield in November 1972 and ran 237 mph, giving him the claim as world's fastest teenager.
Descending from quarter-mile royalty, Fred Mooneyham had drag racing in his DNA, so it’s probably no surprise that he followed his famous father, Gene, onto the dragstrip; it's maybe just surprising that he did it at such a young age.
The early part of Mooneyham’s career was more off the radar than that of his California peers, but he believes that he may have licensed ahead of Randy Allison, Jeb Allen, and John Stewart. He was just 16 years old and in high school when he licensed in the family’s front-engine Mooneyham & Sons Top Fueler at LaPlace Dragway in Louisiana, where the family had moved when the patriarch, then employed by Keith Black, took a job there. After years in California, they packed up and headed east, where young Mooneyham completed high school and got in his first runs at the dragstrip.
The senior Mooneyham, who came into prominence with the famed Mooneyham & Sharp 554 coupe, had progressed to Top Fuel in the 1960s as part of the Jungle Four/Mooneyham-Jackson-Ferguson-Faust team, and it was actually the Mooneyhams' car -- with Robert Anderson’s name on the side -- that Dave Chenevert drove to victory at the inaugural Gatornationals in 1970, with the young Mooneyham as part of the crew.
“I was surrounded by Top Fuelers growing up, so I guess it’s not surprising that I wanted to drive one,” he said. “Growing up, I was just passionate about being out there in the garage with the car until my mom finally would make me come in and go to bed.”
A self-admitted troublemaker as a teen (“I was a straight-D student and just as likely to get into a fight after school than anything else”), Mooneyham channeled that energy into his racing efforts, and his parents were more than happy to give him an outlet – briefly in drag boats, then in motocross before he settled on Top Fuel – to calm his restless nature. And when the family’s latest Top Fuel driver was dismissed for poor performance, young Mooneyham finally got his chance and didn’t waste it.
“I borrowed a firesuit and got my license pretty quickly, in just a couple of weekends,” he remembers. “We raced all over the place: Florida, Bristol, Dallas, Oklahoma City, and all over Division 4 for a couple of years before we went back to California.”
Mooneyham’s brother, Gene Jr., a year his senior and also mechanically gifted, spent time working with a number of nitro teams and was on the crew with Steve Carbone when he upset Don Garlits in the great final-round burndown at the 1971 U.S. Nationals. Both brothers were so mechanically sharp from a young age that they once challenged their high-school small-engines-class teacher’s technical explanation of how a carburetor venturi works. The teacher and administration were so impressed that they got the brothers enrolled for advanced mechanical classes at Delgado Trade School. Between racing and the trade-school classes, Mooneyham wasn’t in high school much, which was just fine with him, and he squeaked through to graduate.
When the family returned to California, Mooneyham came up with the catchy California Cajun name for its now rear-engine dragster and ran regularly throughout the region. One of the family's biggest victories came at Orange County Int’l Raceway’s anniversary Race of Winners in 1972. Former Jungle Four team member and driver Larry Faust was part of the team, as was family friend and future national event Top Fuel winner Stan Shiroma, who handled clutch duties.
“Funny story from those times,” Mooneyham mused. “It was at the March Meet in 1973. Don Garlits had just won the Winternationals, beating Dennis Baca in the final, and stayed out in California for the March Meet. We qualified fairly well but drew Dennis Baca in the first round, and we beat him, which was a surprise to all of us, then we drew Garlits in the second round. What are the odds of that? Now remember, [teenage] John Stewart had just beaten Garlits at Irwindale earlier that year [at the Grand Premiere], and I was there and saw that Garlits was just beyond pissed for getting beaten, and I remember the announcer saying there was no way Don was going to let another teenager beat him. He had lane choice, and we smoked the tires in the bad lane.”
(Mooneyham was good friends with teen peers Allen and Allison and recalls that Allen at one time hatched an idea for the three of them to form a loose alliance with “California Wiz Kids” painted on their cars, though it never came to fruition.)
Mooneyham was also the proud winner of a special, post-season race staged by Steve Evans on Irwindale’s motocross track in November 1973. Dirt-bike riding was a popular pastime for Southern California nitro racers, with guys like Don Moody, Don Prudhomme, Sush Matsubara, and Shiroma making excursions to the desert for a little two-wheel fun. Mooneyham and Moody dueled throughout, with Moody faster on the straights and Mooneyham’s Husqvarna better in the turns and whoop-de-dos, and the youngster outlasted the veteran and, in fact, won all three heats.
In 1974, Gene Mooneyham started the supercharger business that bore his name – and still does today, more than a decade after he sold it – and eventually, the needs of running the business overcame the needs of running a race car, and the dragster was parked.
“We just didn’t have the time to dedicate to the race car, and I was working at the business building blowers with my dad,” he said. “Then I met a girl – to whom I’m still married – and decided to try to move on with my life and become successful in something else.”
The Mooneyhams were neighbors in Downey, Calif., with the Beaver brothers, Richard and Gene, and John Force and the Condit brothers lived close by, so it’s no surprise that young Mooneyham fell into league with them, which led to an offer to drive the L.A. Hooker Vega on a months-long tour of Australia in 1975 when Dave Condit was unable to get time off of work.
Although he had never driven a Funny Car, “Fearless Fred” -- as he had been named by Faust not just for racing, but also for his wild, bar-fighter mentality – agreed to do it. Shakedown runs were scheduled for Irwindale Raceway; the only problem was that no emergency crew or ambulance was available.
Mooneyham, right, with wife Jane and John Force at Flow International HQ.
“My dad begged me not to do it, but I was fearless and said, ‘Let’s go.’ Sure enough, on the first run, it caught fire. I discharged the fire extinguishers – which really pissed off Gene, because they were expensive to refill – and I got out OK, but we couldn’t run again, so that was my training – three-quarters of a run – and off we went to Australia, but we ended up winning the series and setting track records.”
When they returned Stateside, Mooneyham began to frequent Steve Plueger’s S&R Race Cars shop, which led to an invitation to drive the Plueger & Gyger Mustang (previously driven by Condit).
Mooneyham went back to school at nights and earned a business degree (“Even though it took me 14 years,” he chuckles) and went on to help found the world’s largest waterjet cutting systems business, Flow International Corp., which for years was a sponsor of former neighbor Force’s Funny Car team.
Gene Mooneyham died of pneumonia Jan. 17, 2006, at age 75, and left behind a living legacy with his kids. Mooneyham credits the strong work ethic and morals inspired by his father, a former Oklahoma farmer, for their success in life.
“I was very blessed to be raised by Gene Mooneyham,” he said. “He was the finest man that I have ever met, and I was blessed to be in his company and learn the lessons of life from such a great man.”
As I teased in last week’s column, Billy Meyer’s road to Funny Car fame was not without some painful bumps, a trio of which I will share with you this week.
As you read in the previous column, the impressive start of Meyer’s Funny Car career came as no surprise to him because he had been taught from an early age that success was born of imagination, desire, and follow-through, of which he possessed all three. “I thought I was invincible,” he told me, then added jokingly, “which is also probably why I got hurt so many times."
In our multiple interviews in the past two weeks, Meyer shared the tales of three of his scariest racing moments.
1973: Lakeland splashdown
Billy Meyer ended up in a lake with his Funny Car at the end of the track in Lakeland, Fla., and only quick thinking by crewmember Ronnie Guymon (below) saved his life.
It was 1973, Meyer’s first full season in Funny Car. It had started ingloriously in Pomona at the three-week-long, rain-soaked NHRA Winternationals, where he failed to qualify his new car, mostly due to track conditions.
“We never got down the track,” he remembers, “and it’s by the grace of God that I didn’t get down the track because I might have gotten killed.”
Meyer and company left the NHRA Winternationals and made the cross-country trek to the IHRA Winternationals in Lakeland, Fla. On his first qualifying pass, the body caved in at speed and hung the throttle wide open, and the parachute failed to deploy. If this had happened in Pomona, he surely would have gone off the end of the track. In Lakeland, however, the end of the track meant (surprise!) a lake.
“As I hauled ass through there, I see a lake and a house on the lake,” he recalls. “The turnaround area had a little bank to it, and when it hit that bank, it was like a ramp that shot me into the air, over a fence, and 250 feet into the middle of the lake.”
The body disintegrated on impact, and the car nosed down into the deep lake but, miraculously, was kept from sinking by the air inside the rear slicks.
“I was unconscious, but when I woke up, I could see that the car was aimed straight down to the lake bottom,” he said. “The only thing that saved me from drowning was that the breather-mask filters were keeping the water out. I tried to hit the seat-belt release, but the water pressure stopped me from getting enough force. I remember my hands floating away and passing out, but just as I was passing out, I remember seeing hands.”
Those hands belonged to crewmember Ronnie Guymon, who had raced the length of the track in the team’s crew cab and drove right through a multilevel barbed-wire fence that had stopped the rescue crew. The wire ripped the lights off the top of the cab but did not deter Guymon, who dived in and saved his boss.
The medical team revived Meyer, who spent three days in the hospital before being rescued (again) by Gene Beaver and company, who had taken the fledgling flopper pilot under their wing that season. Together they drove out to the track.
“We were standing there looking at the scene, and a guy comes out of the house and says, ‘I was on my balcony watching [the accident]. They killed that guy so bad.’
“Beaver says, ‘Nope, this is him,’ and the guy was like, ‘No way! That scared me to death.’ Turns out that he was so panicked when he saw the accident and was shaking so bad that he dropped the key to his locked door into his shag carpet and couldn’t get out of the house to help.”
1977: Pomona pit pileup
Meyer returned to team ownership in 1977 with a new car and an 18-wheeler, plus a spiffy crew van (below). The car and the van would not survive the Winternationals.
After selling his team in late 1974 and driving for other people in 1975-76 while waiting for the land-speed-record deal to come to fruition (which it never did for him), Meyer decided to return to racing full-time in 1977. He had saved enough money to come back first-class, which included the first 18-wheeler ever seen in the nitro pits. He not only liked the idea of a rolling billboard for his sponsors (which, for this car, was his father’s Success Motivation Institute), but also the safety factor because the day’s fifth-wheel trailers were becoming increasingly overloaded with extra equipment and parts.
The SMI Motivator Camaro arrived at Pomona Raceway for the Winternationals with only a few match race runs on it. Meyer was warming the car in the pits Thursday when the throttle hung open. And remember, this was before jack stands were required in the pits. (“I am the jack-stand rule,” he quipped.)
“The car was so new that I hadn’t had time yet to put nonslip tape on the throttle pedal,” he recalls. "I used to wear cowboy boots all the time back then, and my boot slipped and the toe stuck under the bellhousing. The car ran full throttle into my van and someone else’s truck – I think it was Butch Leal’s – and hit a Porta Potti so hard it knocked [fellow Funny Car driver] John Collins right out of it.”
Meyer was knocked unconscious and was transported to nearby Pomona Valley Hospital, where he remained unconscious for more than two days. He received 180 stitches to his head and suffered a broken collarbone, broken ribs, and a punctured lung.
“That’s the most I’ve been hurt in my life, and it didn’t even happen on the racetrack,” he mused.
Meyer was back in action in time for the Gatornationals six weeks later.
1977: Canadian bakin’
Meyer's wild ride ended in a ditch, but another wild ride awaited him.
Meyer didn't sit idle long and, bandaged hands and all, drove the Funny Car owned by fellow Texan Johnny White, left, a week later at a points race in Louisiana.
1977 wasn't all bad for Meyer. Late in the season, he won his first of 12 NHRA national event titles at the Fallnationals in Seattle. Crew chief Ronnie Swearingen is second from right, and NHRA founder Wally Parks is second from left.
If the Pomona pit accident was the worst he had been hurt, what happened later that star-crossed year certainly had to be a close second. And what happened in the aftermath may have scared him worse than both.
Meyer’s 1977 hadn’t gotten much luckier since Pomona. He made the final at the rain-delayed inaugural Cajun Nationals (at the time a non-points-earning exhibition event) but lost an 85-cent oil-pump gasket on the burnout and had to shut off, allowing Johnny White a solo to his first win. A month later, he reached the final of the Summernationals, but the car wouldn’t start because of a loose idler pulley against Don Prudhomme. Things were about to get a whole lot more unlucky.
A month after his Summernationals runner-up, Meyer qualified No. 4 at Le Grandnational in Quebec and had just defeated Al Hanna in round one when the engine let go, creating a massive fire. Things went from bad to worse when the fire got into the fuel-tank vent, causing the tank to explode. Meyer rode the rolling Molotov cocktail to a halt in the ditch that lines the left side of track and suffered second- and third-degrees burns to his hands after the threads that held the two sides of his fire gloves together burned away. He was transported to a local hospital for care.
“Jeb Allen’s wife [Cindy] went to the hospital to get me because they weren’t doing very much for me there; they just told me I needed to see a doctor when I got back to the States,” recalls Meyer. “I went back to the racetrack and didn’t know how bad I was hurt – I was still just a dumb-ass kid – but Shirley [Muldowney] unwrapped my bandages to see how bad the burns were and almost puked and told me I need to get outta there right now. She went and got Connie [Kalitta], who went and got his airplane and actually landed it on the track.”
Ann Arbor, Mich., and its respected burn center, about a four-hour flight, was the destination, but it was a bad day to try to get out of Canada because Canadian air controllers had just gone on strike, complicating travel matters for all, including our own late, great photographer, Leslie Lovett, who needed to get his film back to California for that week’s issue. Kalitta agreed to also take Lovett along as far as Michigan to help his plight.
Meyer was strapped into the passenger seat of Kalitta’s Cessna, the back seat of which had been removed in favor of cargo storage. With no other choice, Lovett pulled up a milk crate to sit on. Simply getting out of Canadian airspace was the first hurdle as they also were low on fuel.
“We tried to stop at the Montreal airport, but they wouldn’t let us, so Connie gave them a few choice words that you’re probably not supposed to say over the air,” said Meyer with a knowing laugh. “Connie told me to look out the window for other airports, and I finally spotted one, so Connie starts circling to see if they have fuel tanks. I spotted a fuel truck, so we landed and refueled.
“So we take off, and now it’s getting a little cloudy, and now it’s getting a little bumpy, and now it’s getting a little darker, and now it’s raining, and it just keeps getting worse. I asked Connie if we could just land or turn around or do something. He said, ‘Aw, it’s not bad unless there’s lightning.’ I’m telling you what, it was like turning on a switch. As soon as he said that, a big lightning bolt hit right in front of us. Leslie screamed, I screamed. He said, ‘Well, it’s bad now.’ I was more scared then than I was in the fire, and Leslie wasn’t a great flier under normal conditions, so we were both pretty terrified.
“Connie makes a big U-turn and descends from 8,500 feet to like 1,500 feet, then turns right back around and starts flying back into the storm. I said, ‘What are you doing?!’ He said, ‘I can pick my way through it easier at low altitude.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you just use the autopilot?’ so he turns the autopilot on, and the thing almost does a barrel roll. He turns it off and says, ‘Does that every time.’ I said, ’Well, can’t we just land?’ and he said, ‘We’ll get killed hitting a wire.’
“We had no radar down that low, but we started picking our way through it. I asked if there wasn’t anyone, for God’s sake, that we could call, and he finally got hold of ground controllers in Cincinnati, but they told us because we weren’t in American airspace, they couldn’t talk to us. He said, ‘Well, if I keep going this direction, ya think I can make it?’ They recommended we deviate 15 degrees north to avoid the cell, then swing back around. When we finally got on the ground, I was never so happy to go into a burn center."
Meyer didn’t stay there long, checking himself out to continue his pursuit of the championship. He drove White’s Houston Hustler Mustang II at a Division 4 points meet the next weekend at State Capitol Dragway in Baton Rouge, La. (ironically, the same racetrack where White had soloed to victory against Meyer a few months earlier), and wheeled Al Bergler’s Motown Shaker Mustang II at the Division 3 Bowling Green, Ky., points meet.
“Deist made me some mitten gloves like you would wear in the kitchen so I could drive, but my hands were bandaged for eight months, and I couldn’t play golf for five years; I almost lost both thumbs because of the burns.”
He ultimately finished third that year – behind Prudhomme and Gordie Bonin – thanks to finally scoring his first NHRA national event win, beating Jim Dunn in the final at the Fallnationals in Seattle, where, at age 23, he became the youngest Funny Car winner in NHRA history (a title that has been held by Del Worsham since 1991, when he won at age 21 years, 2 months).
Greater things and a lot more success awaited Meyer in the remaining 10 years of his driving career, but he won’t soon forget those three scary moments from the 1970s.