“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.
After last week’s pause to remember some of our fallen friends, we return to the Vega panel thread. There’s not a whole lot of new info to share but some cool photos you guys have sent in, so let’s make this a show and tell.
The Insider’s “photo insider,” legendary lensman Steve Reyes, sent me a huge collection of his stuff on Vega panels.
Here’s a shot of the first Wonder Wagon Vega panel body being worked on at "Lil John" Buttera’s shop. That’s Don Rackemann at right.
A couple of photos from the Wonder Wagon photo shoot at Orange County Int’l Raceway. In the second photo you can see the height difference between the two cars, with the Kelly Brown ride (closest to camera) a low-slung purpose-built chassis by Buttera and the Glenn Way car a taller, older-style chassis necessary because of Way’s taller stature.
Here are two of the other notable Vega panel nitro cars, Bill Rogers’ Travellin' Texan (top) and the short-lived, rear-engine Alabamian of Bill Holt and driver Wayne Mahaffey. Rogers, a former Top Fuel racer out of Corpus Christi, Texas, somehow kept his car out of trouble and ran it for several years. Prior to this car, he ran the Mercury Cougar-bodied Texas Super Cougar and then renamed it Travellin' Texan before moving to the Vega in 1972. After a few years (and a lot of dollars), Rogers swapped his blower for injectors and ran the car as an A/FC, according to Reyes.
Here’s Don Schumacher in what I think must be the ill-fated first pass in the Vega panel at Great Lakes Dragaway after he took over the Wonder Bread deal. The car got way out of shape (some folks even remember it taking an excursion into the grass area lining the track; Schumacher says no) and convinced “The Shoe” that this was not a good fit, after which he returned to his Barracuda bodies.
And here’s the Ohio-based Russell-Cook-Bolender Trick Truck injected fuel Funny Car with Larry Russell at the controls at the 1973 U.S. Nationals.
Texan Clayton Pool has run everything from nitro Funny Car to Alcohol Funny Cars and altereds, Pro Mods, and even a rocket kart, but he also wheeled this injected fuel Vega wagon at Green Valley Race City in 1972. Dig the see-through side windows, a rarity for the body style.
Here’s an incredible photo of Gary Gabelich’s outrageous four-wheel-drive, rear-engine Vega panel, caught in mid-turmoil by another legendary ace shooter, Jere Alhadeff, shortly before its demise at Orange County Int’l Raceway. Alhadeff tells me he didn’t even know the car was going to be running that day or that he would get what’s a pretty rare shot of the car in action. “I just happened to be at OCIR shooting a feature. We were on the return road when I heard them and then saw them fire it up by the starting line. I quickly switched to a longer lens and shot this photo on the test run. When I went over to talk with Gary and crew at that time, they said that they were not going to make another run. After I left, they decided to make another run (which I have always heard was without the body on the monocoque chassis), and that was the run where he went over the guardrail doing himself so much physical damage. Gary told me later on that his leg was so severely damaged they wanted to remove it, but he told them as long as he could stand the pain, he was going to keep it and see if it would heal.”
Bob Snyder passed along the photo of this Vega, shot at the 1978 AHRA Winternationals. Research tells us it’s the car owned by Arizonians Ed and Jack Maroney and driven by Mike Day. Although it looks like a Funny Car, apparently it was campaigned as a Fuel Altered and held the AHRA record holder in 1973 with an 8.26. Reportedly, the body came from the same mold as the Wonder Wagon cars. The lightweight car (1,400 pounds wet) was powered by the 326-cid, small-block Chevy out of Day’s fiat and ran injected on 95 percent nitro.
Rich Hanna dropped me a line to let me know that Bob Hall’s timeless Paddy Wagon Vega Panel wheelstander, which was built in the early 1970s and raced into the mid-2000s, is now owned by Alyson Kurtas, who is the girlfriend of Hanna team jet Funny Car driver Ken Hall. According to Hanna, she hopes to become the first woman licensed in a wheelstander later this year.
With all of the love being doted on Chevy’s little hauler, Darryl Judd (“a dyed-in-the-wool Ford fan") wanted to know if there were any Pinto wagon drag race cars. “I don’t think I ever saw one but maybe a little more research for us lowly Ford fans?” he pleaded.
Your wish is my command, Darryl. We all know that there were a ton of Pinto coupes in Funny Car (Dale Pulde/Mickey Thompson, Al Hanna, the California Charger, Gary Densham, Bill Schifsky/Doc Halladay, etc.) and in Pro Stock (Bob Glidden, Wayne Gapp, Don Nicholson, etc.) but not many panel wagons.
The first car that leaped to mind was Gary Coe’s mid-1970s Gunfighter Pro Stocker from the great Northwest. Coe raced the Pinto wagon from 1974 to 1979, in the Pro Stock class, and qualified for several NHRA events and was even credited with a round-win against (not yet “The Professor”) Warren Johnson at the 1975 Fallnationals in Seattle, when W.J. was a first-round no-show. Coe lost in round two to Glidden. After more than two decades out of the saddle to build his towing business (and a failed bid for a Senate seat), Coe now competes in Stock eliminator with an AAA/SA Cobra Jet. You can check out his website here.
After Coe, the DragList site lists only Danny O’Day’s wheelstander as a historic Pinto panel. Wonder why the disparity …
I may be wrong, but I think that pretty much wraps up the Vega panel thread. Thanks to all who followed and contributed. We all learned a lot.
I love email and text messages — can’t even begin to think where any of us would be without either in this day and age — but I’m almost to the point where I cringe every time a new email pops into my Inbox or my phone sounds off the arrival of a new text. It’s been a very rough two weeks for fans of drag racing, especially those with long memories or appreciation for those who helped hew this sport from its rough and tumble early image into today’s sleek professional series.
First came word via email April 12 that famed chassis builder Bill Stebbins, who had built cars for the likes of Franks & Funk, Jim & Alison Lee, Jim Bucher, Don Woosley, and others had passed away. Then three days later, we learned of the passing of Gordon Browning, a Los Angeles Police Department officer and early member of the NHRA board of directors. Last weekend, I got a text from Richard Tharp that “Bones” Carroll, of the famed Texas Whips Top Fuel team, had died. Wednesday word came of the passing of nitro legend Kenny Safford, of “Sour Sisters” and Mr. Norm fame, and with it, the news that just a few days before him, one of Safford’s earliest partners, influential Southern California chassis builder Rod Peppmuller, had also died after an infection following surgery to work on his pacemaker.
I didn’t know Stebbins, but I certainly knew of his work, especially as it related to Woosley and partners Bill Sharp and Bill Reynolds and their incredible Ale-8-One dragster that won the 1982 NHRA Top Alcohol Dragster world championship, 10 national event Wallys, and seven Division 3 championships. Woosley was one of the great characters I’ve encountered in my years in the sport, and as good as he was behind the wheel, he was always ready to credit those who helped get him there, which included Stebbins, who had built pipe for the team since Woosley’s first car, the Magic Show A/Fuel dragster, in the early 1970s. (Woosley died a few years ago; here’s a column I wrote about him back then.)
Stebbins, a member of the Kentucky Motorsports Hall of Fame who also was honored by NHRA just two years ago at the National Hot Rod Reunion, claimed more than 25 NHRA and IHRA national event wins for his cars as well as many national record holders in both associations.
Stebbins got his start humbly, selling National Speed Sport News in the stands at circle-track races and had his first dragster by age 20. He partnered early with Tom Severt and founded S&S Engineering, building, among its most memorable cars, the twin-engine Franks & Funk dragster and was at the forefront of rear-engine Top Fuel technology with Jack Hart and Billy Campbell and their Golddigger entry. His chassis also held the Chevy engine that Jim Bucher tuned to his stunning Top Fuel win at the 1975 Summernationals. He later opened a business, Stebbins Aviation, that repaired damaged airplanes.
Browning’s passing may not have reached the radar screens of many, but it was personal to me because I had met him in 2001, when NHRA was celebrating its 50th anniversary. I had just completed a months-long project to create the 50th anniversary website, which includes a painstaking account of NHRA’s earliest days. I had read about Browning in early issues of Hot Rod and had heard of him from Wally Parks, so it was an honor to meet him at a special get-together NHRA hosted at the Tam O’Shanter Inn March 13, 2001, exactly 50 years after NHRA’s official incorporation papers had been signed there.
Browning, an officer of the Los Angeles Police Traffic Education and Youth Safety Division, became a board member in 1952, not long after a chance meeting with Parks, who was on his way to work one day in the early 1950s, cruising crosstown in a fenderless, low-riding '32 Ford coupe, when he ran into a traffic snarl caused by construction.
"Before too long, there was a plume of steam coming from my radiator, and I was looking for any escape route," recalled Parks at that affair. "When I looked in my rear-view mirror, there was a black and white cruiser back there. Just about then, my radiator let go like Mount Vesuvius, so I pulled over onto the shoulder. The officer began walking up to my car, and I thought I was in a lot of trouble. Instead, he took me in his cruiser to the police station to get some water for my car. That started a long and wonderful friendship."
Parks, never one to forget an ardent supporter of his cause, also made sure that Browning was on hand Jan. 29 in downtown L.A. when Mayor Richard Riordan proclaimed it National Hot Rod Association Day in the city of Los Angeles.
Browning also was instrumental in working with Pomona police chief Ralph Parker and Pomona officer Bud Coons to help establish racing at Pomona Raceway and did much of the legal legwork that resulted in the creation of Lions Drag Strip a few years later.
"Bones" Carroll, left, and brother Curt, right, with early partner Murray Oxman.
No one remembers how "Bones" got the nickname, but here's Curt Carroll in the brothers' early A/Gas Ford entry, the Bonesmobile Special, in 1960.
The "Texas Troublemakers," from left, Richard Tharp, Jim Bucher, and Curt and "Bones" Carroll in 1969.
The wild Carroll Bros. & Oxman twin-engine Top Fueler driven by Buddy Cortines.
When the Carrolls switched to Pro Comp in the mid/late-1970s, Ben Griffin was the driver of this injected fuel car and scored a runner-up at the 1978 World Finals.
David Pace drove to two Top Fuel runner-ups, including the 1981 U.S. Nationals. This is the same Tony Casarez-built chassis used by Griffin in Pro Comp.
“Bones” Carroll, 86, whose seldom-used first name was William, and brother Curt fielded cars from their Texas base for years, beginning with an A/FD before moving to Top Fuel. (The origination of the "Bones" nickname is unclear — especially considering that he was a big man — but only his brother, Curt; his wife; and their mother regularly called him "Bill." Curt died of cancer quite a few years ago.)
The brothers, who operated the Irving, Texas-based Carroll Bros. Erection Company, which specialized in structural steel buildings, had an all-star roster of drivers over the years, including Bob Gibson (with whom they won the 1970 NHRA Springnationals), Dave Settles, Buddy Cortines, Richard Tharp, Marshall Love, Kenny Bernstein, Murray Oxman, Ben Griffin, James Ludden, and Gary Bailey, winning a slew of Division 4 championships along the way, but had some of their greatest success in their early 1980s outings with driver David Pace.
Tharp drove for the Carroll brothers in both the 1960s, with their front-engine car, and in 1975, with their rear-engine car. Tharp’s first ride with them was in 1965, a stint that was cut short after he was drafted to serve in Vietnam (leaving the seat open for Kenny Bernstein and leading to the infamous and hilarious Jimmy Nix story I shared in my 2012 column about Tharp) and, after driving for Childs & Albert upon his return, he drove for the Carrolls again in 1969 in a car with which they were partnered with Jim Bucher (not the same Bucher of Chevy Top Fuel fame).
In fact, it was Tharp’s performance in the Carroll car at the 1975 Summernationals, where the car ran 5.97 (the first sub-six-second pass at Raceway Park) to qualify No. 1, that caught the eye of Paul Candies, who was looking for a driver to replace Dave Settles. Candies sought and received permission from Curt Carroll to hire their talented shoe.
Having spent that much time around the brothers — including working for their construction company during the off-season — Tharp had a lot of good memories of their time together.
“When I drove for them in the 1960s, we were just about unbeatable,” he said. “ ‘Bones’ was just a great big funny guy and fun to be around. ‘Bones’ lived in an apartment right across from Love Field, in apartment 123. He called it the 123 Club because a lot of the airline stewardesses on layovers stayed in the building and a lot of times in his apartment. He had a party every night.
“Everybody loved him; he was kind of like Paul Candies. No one ever had anything bad to say about him. Curt, too. They were just good ol’, straight-up, honest-to-goodness country guys. They worked hard and made a lot of money but knew how to have fun.”
Pace was runner-up to Johnny Abbott on a red-light in the final round of the 1981 U.S. Nationals at Indy — where they also became the 11th member of the NHRA 250-mph club — and also runner-up to Jeb Allen at that year’s NHRA Mile-High Nationals in Denver en route to a ninth-place finish in the Top Fuel standings, despite running less than half of that year’s events.
Pace had many fond memories of their time together. “ ‘Bones’ was one of the most unique individuals I’ve ever known, dead serious about his racing and meticulous in race car preparation,” he said. “He hated to hurt his precious engine parts, and I’ve seen him sit for hours, gently massaging wrist pins with oil (he claimed they would absorb the oil) before assembling an engine. I got the ride with the Carrolls when they decided to return to Top Fuel after a four-year hiatus running Pro Comp, and when our first engine was assembled, both Larry Meyer and Ed Cluff tried to tell him why he needed to use a dial indicator and go by the numbers on the card to time the cam. Bones wouldn’t hear of it. He said, ‘Now lookee here, I’ve got me this perfectly flat hunk o’ iron (pronounced ‘arn’) that I lay across the lifters on No. 1. That’s how I’ve always done it, and that’s how I’ll continue to do it.’ I dutifully followed instructions and used his “hunk o’ iron” (a broken keyway broach) without fail when I timed the cam. Right or wrong, it worked, and the car hauled ass.
“ ‘Bones’ was equally well-known for the head games he’d play with the competition and for his storytelling. Many a Dallas-Fort Worth-area racer has accused him of never letting the truth stand in the way of a good story, although there was usually a fair amount of truth, maybe embellished a little, in his performances. Any time he’d roll that cigar from one side of his mouth to the other and say, ‘Now, lookee here … ’ you wanted to grab a chair and hear whatever tale was about to be told. One of my favorites is about a mid-'60s AHRA race where the Carroll Bros., with Richard Tharp driving, ended up in the final against up-and-coming John Wiebe and his Agent car. As the story goes, Bones walked over to Wiebe and said, ‘We’ve got us a problem.’ Wiebe said, ‘What’s that, Bones?’ Bones said, ‘[AHRA President Jim] Tice is in the tower, and I heard that he’s going to red-light us. Don’t know which one of us it’ll be, but just to be sure, what we need to do is both of us just pull in and wait until we see a full green light on before we move. That way he can’t red-light either one of us.’ Well, Tharp left like a rocket on the last amber while Wiebe sat waiting for the green light, and at the other end, he was pretty upset. When he said, ‘Bones, I thought we were gonna wait for the green,’ Bones said, ‘Well … we were, but I guess I must have forgotten to tell Tharp I wasn’t there and can’t vouch for the accuracy of that one, but I’ve heard it directly from ‘Bones’ and from enough other racers over the years that it’s become legend, true or not. [Tharp confirmed the story and said that it happened at Green Valley Race City.]
“ ‘Bones’ loved to hold court during down time or at a restaurant or hotel, and invariably, one of his audience would ask who was the best driver they’d ever had. He’d hem-haw around and never really give a direct answer, always looking to see who was around and listening. Then, someone would ask who was their worst driver. He’d get really uncomfortable with that subject and usually countered with, ‘Well, I won’t say, but lookee here, I’ll tell you this, that there Tharp is your PREEEEEMIER fuel driver.’ If you stayed around long enough and kept him on topic, occasionally you’d get the answer to that second question.”
The team stopped running after the 1982 season, and in 1984, the Carrolls were inducted into the Division 4 NHRA Hall of Fame.
Peppmuller, left, tunes up Ivo's tie before his wedding.
Peppmuller, a member of the famed Burbank Road Kings car club that also included the likes of "TV Tommy" Ivo, Don Prudhomme, Bob Muravez, was partners for a time in a chassis-building business with “Tubular Tommy,” and a number of memorable cars, including Tony Nancy's 22 Jr. gas dragster, the Weekly-Rivero-Fox-Holding Frantic Four (and the subsequent Orange County Metal Processing Special driven by Norm Weekly), Jack Chrisman's 1964 Winternationals-winning Howard Cams Twin Bear, the Dead End Kids car, and the record-setting Croshier-Baltes-Lovato Top Fueler.
It also was Pepmuller’s chassis in which Don “the Snake” Prudhomme made his first Top Fuel passes in 1959, using Prudhomme’s Buick engine and Pepmuller’s car. They took turns driving the car; Prudhomme claims he could always make it run faster.
Peppmuller and Ivo were pretty much inseparable. They went to Burroughs High School together, where Peppmuller was a football star, and the two stayed close afterwards. Peppmuller, 78 at his passing, was the best man at Ivo’s wedding in 1972 and died last Thursday, the day before Ivo’s 78th birthday.
“He was my strong right arm and a little bit of the left one as well,” Ivo told me by email Wednesday. “He kind of was to me what I'm told Fritz Voigt was to Mickey Thompson. He also ran my chassis shop, was partners in the auto-repair business, built the welding part of my trailers. He was my best man and replacement brother, when my real brother passed away. He was the salt of the earth — especially to put up with I-V-O for so many years!”
Peppmuller also built the first dragster that Safford drove after he transitioned from street cars and Super Stockers to dragsters after becoming a member of the Road Kings.
“[The Road Kings] raced a lot at the old San Fernando dragstrip, and after watching them a few times, I began racing with my mom’s ’56 Ford coupe that had a 312-cid engine,” he told National Dragster in 2007.” I then got my own ’57 Chevy with a 301-cid engine and became a member of the Road Runners, and I was runner-up to Shirley Shahan in the Super Stock final at the first Bakersfield March Meet in 1959.”
Safford teamed with Peppmuller and fellow club member Don Gaide; Peppmuller built the car and Safford the engine. Safford traded his prized ’57 Chevy for a ‘59 El Camino tow vehicle. When the engine expired after a half-dozen races, Safford and Gaide joined forces with Don Ratican of the Ratican-Jackson-Stearns team, which was breaking up, and the powerful Olds engine from the R-J-S Fiat went into a dragster for 1962.
The Safford-Ratican-Gaide won 17 out of the first 22 Top Fuel races it attended but also was hard on parts. “We were winning enough races for the car to support itself, but we were constantly breaking engines because the Olds block wasn’t strong enough,” remembered Safford. “We went through 22 blocks in one year.”
Enter the always cunning prankster Mr. Ivo, who shared shop space with the team.
“Ivo would see us pouting a lot every time we broke an engine, so he started calling us the ‘Sour Sisters,’ and the nickname stuck,” said Safford.
The team switched to Chrysler power in early 1963 before Safford moved to the seat of the B&M Torkmaster car in 1964, which preceded a long and successful stint driving for “Terrible Ted” Gotelli that lasted until early 1969.
Safford made the switch to Funny Cars in 1969, driving first for the Stone-Woods-Cooke team on the new Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars program, which allowed to make contacts with many more racers, track promoters, and manufacturers. Among those he met was Gary Dyer, driver of the Mr. Norm’s Dodge Funny Car, who was looking to step out of the car for the 1970 season after suffering burns in a fire and offered Safford his ride.
Recalled Safford, “I lived downstairs at Gary’s house that year and did all of the work and maintenance on the car. Gary would attend the races with me to do the tuning, and we won more than 75 percent of the nearly 80 races we ran that year.”
When Dyer returned to the cockpit in 1970, Safford returned to Top Fuel, and it was in Larry Bowers’ car that he became a footnote to history because it was Safford who should have been in the other lane at the 1971 Winternationals when Don Garlits scored the first win for a rear-engine car, but a balky clutch kept them from challenging for the title and ruining Garlits’ storybook ending.
Safford returned to driving for Dyer and the Mr. Norm’s team in 1972 but had a less-than-memorable return.
“It was a new Dodge Challenger, and it had a weird type of steering box,” he recalled. “I went over the guardrail on my first run in Lakeland, Fla. We repaired the car, and I ran it for the rest of the season. Prior to the 1973 season, I purchased the car in a transaction that included Mr. Norm’s sponsorship for parts.”
Safford continued running the Mr. Norm’s Dodges through the late 1970s before moving from California to become part owner with Jim Urso of Performance Auto Parts in 1979. Dave Settles drove for him in 1979 and John Potts in 1980, and a combination of the growing business and a severe hand injury in a shop accident that required more than two and a half years of therapy ended his drag racing career.
Safford and his wife, Carolyn, operated Performance Auto Parts through 1996, and he had kept busy building street rods for customers and was involved in the 1999 re-creation of the Sour Sisters car, which took part in the first NHRA Cacklefest and many more in the years that followed. The car is a staple of the NHRA Motorsports Museum.
Safford was recognized by NHRA in 1996 as an honoree at the California Hot Rod Reunion and was inducted into Don Garlits' International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2002.
All in all, a pretty tough two weeks for the sport, and as the years go on and our heroes continue to age, unfortunately, it’s going to continue to provide some sad times. The best we all can do is to honor and treasure those that are still with us and to salute and remember them after they no longer are. That’s my plan.