Even though the main trunk of the Keeling & Clayton thread continues to grow, today I’m branching out a bit to address growing questions about a guy whose name has been part of the story even though he never drove for the team. I’m talking about Gerry “the Hunter” Glenn, who was inexorably tied to the team by two key races: the 1970 Supernationals, where K&C driver Rick Ramsey defeated him in the final for their lone national event victory, and the final round of the 1971 PDA event at Orange County, where the Schultz & Glenn dragster bested Ramsey in the final.
Glenn is a guy whom I’ve long wondered about but whose career I’d never had a chance to explore. Most folks know that he was the 1971 NHRA Top Fuel champ by virtue of his final-round victory over no less than “Big Daddy” Don Garlits at the 1971 World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, but to many, he is considered one of the great natural Top Fuel pilots.
Validation for that praise certainly comes due to a lengthy résumé of other triumphs beyond his world championship, but perhaps key is that he jumped right into a Top Fuel car in 1965 with no experience and immediately began getting noticed. His first ride was in Ron Winkle’s MagiCar (later Winkle, Trapp & Glenn), and within a month, he was standing in the winner’s circle after an event in Palmdale, Calif. A stunning 7.10 at Irwindale in early 1967 in the Andre, Trapp & Glenn machine brought him more raves, and he diversified into Top Gas with John Rasmussen later that year and racked up a series of big-name wins in that class, too.
In 1968, John Bateman hired him to wheel the Atlas Oil Tool Top Fueler, and together, they won the Division 7 championship. After Bateman opted to move to Funny Car, Glenn first teamed with two-time Top Gas championship tuner Bill Schultz in 1970 and drove in Top Fuel and Top Gas for him. In their first trip to Indy, they fell just short of upsetting the killer twin-engine Top Gas rail of Motes & Williams, then loaned their engine to Jack Jones, who beat Ray Motes in the final.
Don Garlits red-lighted against Gerry Glenn in the final round of the 1971 World Finals to make the Schultz & Glenn team the Top Fuel world champ.
The 1971 season, as mentioned, was a tour de force. In addition to running a pair of 6.41s at Lions – the quickest passes in history – and winning the PDA event, they famously beat Garlits in Amarillo. Garlits already had been crowned the AHRA champ and was looking to double up. He had lane choice for the final (6.60 to 6.72) and ran low e.t. in the final, 6.55, to Glenn’s 6.59, but red-lighted. According to Glenn, as told to National Dragster then, he and Schultz had noticed in qualifying that the Tree at Amarillo was a “slower Tree” and planned accordingly. Schultz and Glenn were the final Top Fuel champs to win it with a slingshot, and they never found the same success after joining the switch to a rear-engine configuration. They competed in Funny Car with Jim Glenn (of Shady Glenn fame) for a couple of seasons before opting out, but that ‘71 Top Fueler remains a memorable machine and perhaps a bit of a missing link in the slingshot-to-rear-engine evolution. You only have to look at the photos to see that the engine placement is not that of a standard slingshot.
It's obvious from this profile photo that the engine in the Schultz & Glenn Top Fueler was moved significantly farther ahead than its peers.
I was thrilled to hear from Dan Tuttle, whose famous father, Don, built that car in his California Chassis Engineering shop in SoCal’s San Fernando Valley.
“That car had everybody scratching their heads,” recalled his proud son. “It was vastly different from everything else out there. It incorporated all of Schultz's ideas. The wheelbase was unheard-of -- for single-engine cars anyway – and the engine was then moved out to about 46 inches from the then standard of around 32. This combined with the downward angle of the crank centerline necessitated the use of a dry-sump oiling system.
“Since this was in the middle of the first paradigm shift in Top Fuel racing, everybody was rushing back to the chassis shops, either to have their front-engine cars redone or to build rear-engine cars. I think we all know how that turned out.”
From left, race queen Carolyn Devore, Gerry and Sharon Glenn, and Bill Schultz in the 1971 PDA winner's circle at OCIR.
The 1970 Schultz Top Gas car also had a significant engine-location adjustment.
According to Tuttle, his father was “sort of a silent partner” with Schultz. “Bill would buy the car for a dollar, and when he was finished running it, my dad would give his dollar back. Cheap R&D when you think about it!
“Also, somewhere in the sea of people [in the photo] is my brother Dave, the current proprietor of California Chassis Engineering (now Dave Tuttle Race Cars), who was then 14 years old. Can you imagine being that age and getting to hang out with one of the baddest hot rods on the planet? I was 7 and sleeping in the back of the truck.”
I’ve been pals with Dave for decades, since my first years on the Dragster staff in the early 1980s, so I reached out to him at his popular place of business. As expected, he had the entire story and, as a chassis builder himself, knew the specs by heart. He also confirmed what I had found in other photos in Glenn’s file, that Schultz had a similarly configured gas dragster in 1970.
After Schultz and Jones had won the Top Gas championship [in 1969], [After the 1969 season,] Schultz turned that car in and got another one from my dad – for a dollar – that went from 175 inches [wheelbase] and the engine out 32 [inches] to 190 with the motor out 40. That set the stage for the Top Fueler. The standard for a Top Fueler then was 200 inches; the Schultz & Glenn car was 230 inches. The engine was indeed 46 inches out, and it really got everyone’s attention when we brought it out to Irwindale for the Grand Premiere.”
"The engine was so far out from the rear end that they had to use a driveshaft from a ’55 Chevy to span the distance (ironically, it was the thing that broke on the first run because the heat-treat was wrong on the coupler shaft), but after that, it was unstoppable. It won 21 races that season. People don’t realize that it was high-gear only and an iron block, and only a few people know that when we beat Keeling & Clayton to win the PDA event, we split the No. 1 cylinder wall and put a rod out, but no one knew because it had a dry-sump system.”
Dave’s familiarity with the specs of the car comes not only from his firsthand experience as a teenager living a dream, but also from running the car after getting it back in 1989 from Paul Gerber, who had bought it from Schultz. “I put all of my stuff into it and ran it for three years. I went to 14 events and made nine finals,” he recalled. “There was still some magic left in it. I was afraid to crash it because it really deserves to be in a museum.
“That car made every other front-engined dragster team out there move the motor out, move the rear end back, or stretch the wheelbase, or all of the above. Shame is that at the end of the year, they were all obsolete, and everyone went to rear-engined cars. That was a crazy time because there was so much progression going on.”
The 1972 rear-engine Schultz & Glenn dragster did not enjoy the success of its front-engine predecessor.
(Side note: Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson, who exhaustively covered the front- to rear-engine transformation in their twin books about Garlits' revolutionary Swamp Rat 14, put together a great summary of the slingshot’s demise that they call “March to Oblivion” and was posted on Don Ewald’s amazing We Did It For Love site. Check it out here. [Note: Their graphic about the Schultz & Glenn car says that engine was moved forward 50 inches; that’s obviously a typo -- that would have put it at 82 inches out![)
Don Tuttle also built the rear-engine car for Schultz, but Glenn reportedly was never comfortable in it, and Schultz didn’t want to lean on the engine, so they only won one race that year. They never even came close to the success of the front-engine car in 1972 and even tried their hands at Funny Car but again didn't have a lot of success. After a several-year retirement, Schultz served as crew chief for Kelly Brown’s four-win (including Indy), second-place Top Fuel campaign in 1979 and as a crew chief or tuning consultant for a number of drivers, including Hall of Famers such as Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Shirley Muldowney, and Garlits. Glenn continued to run Top Fuel for a short time, then found another quality ride in the national-record-setting Plueger & Gyger Mustang.
Interesting times, interesting tales. It’s what makes our little world here go 'round and 'round.
For a team and a stable of cars that only existed for seven years, the love that’s being bestowed on the Keeling & Clayton California Chargers is pretty impressive; I wish John Keeling were still with us to share the glory with Jerry Clayton.
The sheer outpouring of admiration for the show-quality nature of their cars is evident in that everyone seems to have a collection of photos of the various California Chargers, including veteran drag racing photographer Dave Milcarek, who sent the images in the gallery at right as a bonus in response to a photo request from a reader that I’ll talk about in a bit.
In addition to nice photos of the rear-engine dragster – I really dig the ground-level shot, which is the third in the sequence -- Milcarek has great shots of the popular Mustang Funny Car that followed the initial Pinto and preceded the Trans Am. Milcarek has been shooting drag racing since 1975. You can check out his website here.
Milcarek’s name entered the conversation after “loyal reader” (I love that!) John Murnan II asked if I could get Milcarek to share photos that he took of the K&C Mustang “when they had what looked like gold all over the motor (and probably other places on the car). I have always wondered if it really was gold, and if so, why they did it (other than to make the car look fantastic, of course). Maybe you could get that info from Mr. Clayton on the whole gold thing on that car (and others of theirs as well?). That might make for some interesting reading, too. Absolutely one of the most gorgeous race cars ever.”
I asked Clayton about the blower, which opened the door for him to address some of the other questions that he has seen here as he has followed along with the last two columns.
“The gold blower was made out of 14-karat gold alloy because the more pure 24-karat gold was too soft to maintain shape when it got hot under high boost pressure. Also, most of the shiny parts on the cars were polished magnesium -- a lot lighter than aluminum -- and took a lot of rag work (even inside of rear wheels), and I believe that the polished blower was coated with maybe Dow 19, which gave it the gold color. Magnesium was routinely coated (aerodited, similar to aluminum anodizing) to control corrosion/oxidation, and if you polished the material first, it would then be shiny.”
He also noted that the linen napkins that Pat Green referenced as high-dollar rags thanks to the airline connection that Keeling and Clayton shared were actually clothes with jeweler’s rouge compound for polishing the blower.
Regarding questions on the whereabouts of the Pinto, Clayton said, “Don Long had made an SFI Spec-approved Funny Car roll cage for a customer in Hawaii, and when we decided to go to the Mustang body to get rid of the aero problems of the Pinto, we cut the frame off just forward of the motor plate and sold the front frame and Pinto body along with interior aluminum to the customer in Hawaii. I don't know who it was, but maybe Don Long knows who/where it’s all at. At that time, NHRA had just changed the chassis rules to allow solid suspended front ends on Funny Cars. We extended the frame [forward] the distance to the nose of the body and mounted our fuel and dry sump tanks up there for better weight toward the front. The axle (still a tube axle) ran across the car behind the tanks -- you can see some of that in those pics.
“The Mustang was sold to some Canadian racers (they liked to come down and buy used stuff to beat extremely high import fees/taxes); however, I was on a layover in Santa Barbara a couple years later and saw it sitting outside on the corner of a gas station, so maybe someone from around there might remember it.
“A note about the national record: It used to be that a record had to be set at a regional points race within a time constraint of maybe one hour or the two final runs at the U.S. Nationals (winner or runner-up). The NHRA tracks on the West Coast were marginal for being able to put down two runs to qualify for a record in the time period; even if you could do the time, you had to get back through the lanes in time to run again, and there were always lots of fuelers in line. We were able to do it at Fremont (sea level), and we had installed a Jim Davis Funny Car-type starter on our car and were able to go through a lane set aside for record-backup runs down by the Stockers, etc. The 6.21 record that Don Garlits set at Indy was thrown out because he had 4 inches of offset in his front end/wheelbase, but instead of leaving us as the record holders, NHRA set a standard of (I think) 6.20 or so.”
On a lighter note, Steve Reyes noticed my inclusion of Tom Ferraro on the list of Funny Car shoes employed by Keeling & Clayton and sent this vintage gem of the K&C Pinto and Ferraro “screwing around” after a magazine photo shoot of the Pinto at a SoCal Jack in the Box restaurant (as an aside, I can’t tell you how many late-night Jack in the Box tacos and onion rings my friends and I devoured after an evening of cruising). Believe it or not, kids, that’s what Jack used to look like before the 21st century marketing suits prettied him (and the restaurants, for that matter) up. Oh, the horror …
Last week, I mentioned that before the historic side-by-side 6.41s run by Rick Ramsey in the California Charger slingshot and Don Prudhomme in the Hot Wheels wedge in the semifinals of the 1971 PDA event at Orange County Int’l Raceway, Gerry Glenn had run two 6.41s himself at Lions a month earlier. Reader Mark Wallace remembers it well. “I believe he broke John Mulligan's long-standing e.t. mark and ran back-to-back .41s to take the win. He was on the cover of Drag News along with myself and two other buddies. Probably the best photo we ever got in, right in the middle, front page of Drag News. I would love to get a copy of that photo. Any suggestions on how? I actually believe we are standing next to Gerry's wife; she was ‘really hot,’ especially when you’re 17 years old. Man, those were the good old days of drag racing: 32-car shows, quarter-mile track, good-looking girls. Awesome.”
I wasn’t able to find the photo in question in our files but did find these two, one of which shows the awesome Schultz & Glenn dragster en route to beating Ramsey in the PDA final, 6.50 to a blower-eating 6.72, and a winner’s circle photo that doesn’t show Wallace or Glenn’s wife but does showcase Linda Vaughn and fellow Hurstette Nikki Phillips. With Glenn, receiving congratulations from PDA promoter Doug Kruse, are Funny Car winner Gene Conway at right and famed Combo winner Don Enriquez at left with Miss PDA Vicki Holloway. Enriquez made some history of his own that night in his Gene Adams-tuned Jr. Fueler, becoming the first of the breed to run in the sixes with passes of 6.98 and 6.99. Interested guests included Chuck “the Rifleman” Connors, who was the grand marshal, and Brandon Cruz, Eddie in the then-popular TV show The Courtship of Eddie’s Father
. Now you know.
While – as noted last week -- the reconstruction of the California Charger is under way at Long’s shop, someone already has done the job, at least in small scale. I received links and photos from two readers -- David Ryberg and Kevin Bye – raving about the amazing job that Missouri model maker Bill Davis did in re-creating the classic digger in plastic. Clayton had his hand in this one, too, providing many reference photos to Davis, who nailed it, as you can see in the gallery at right.
“The results are pretty spectacular,” commented Bye. “I don't think I have ever seen so many machined parts on a model in my life! Certainly beyond my level of skill and patience!!!! Apparently, he has won a few awards already, and I think there might be a magazine feature.”
According to posts by Davis on a modeling message board, the project took him a year to complete, and as you can see, the result is stunning, from the detailed cockpit to the intricate paint scheme and everything between.
All right, my friends, that’s it for another trip down Memory Lane. I’ll be back next week with another installment. Thanks, as always, for contributing.
As if I really had any doubt, feedback after last Friday’s column about the Keeling & Clayton California Chargers was pretty huge and cemented my belief that they had one of the West Coast’s most popular teams in the 1970s.
To illustrate as we go along, here's a little eye candy: Larry Solger was kind enough to pass along a handful of photos he took, of both the front-engine Top Fueler and the Pinto Funny Car, for the gallery at right.
J.R. Ybarra, another “left coast” regular, asked about the exclusion of Billy Meyer from the driving roster for the Keeling & Clayton team. “I believe Billy Meyer had a very short time with the team as I recall seeing him pilot their Mustang at OCIR and was wondering if you could confirm that,” he asked. Meyer did drive the car for a few months in 1975, a year in which he actually drove three cars — Gene Snow's Vega (while Snow was recovering from back surgery), the K&C car, and the Plueger and Gyger Mustang — while he was working with Hal Needham on a land-speed rocket car. His contract forbade him from owning another team but apparently had a loophole big enough to drive a Funny Car through that let him keep driving for other people. He drove for Snow early in the year, then for Keeling and Clayton, then for Plueger.
Former Dragster editor Bill Holland took note of the photo of Ramsey and the “trophy queen” in the winner’s circle at the 1970 Supernationals. According to Holland, the lady’s name is Sharon Harvey, and her claim to fame at the time was being Miss Tanya, representing a then-popular suntan lotion.
“Yours truly put the deal together to get Sharon the gig at Ontario. Back then, NHRA used to have ‘trophy queens’ at all the national events, and the late Bob Russo [then the PR director for NHRA] was not noted for picking too many attractive gals,” recalled Holland. “I had a lady friend at the agency for Tanya, got Wally to consider the cross-promotion, and it proved to be a win-win deal. Sharon was an absolute sweetheart. She took the task very seriously and was as pleasant with the winner of Stock eliminator [Marv Ripes] as she was with Rick. In fact, she liked NHRA and the racers so much that she later came to the Division 7 banquet of her own volition. So now you have the proverbial 'rest of the story. ' "
Regarding the dual 6.41s record by Rick Ramsey in the K&C car at Don Prudhomme at the Orange County Int’l Raceway PDA meet in late July, I heard from Mickey Bryant, who with Todd Hutcheson penned an authoritative history on the period in Don Garlits R.E.D., their two-book tale of Don Garlits’ first rear-engine dragster, which in 1971 appeared to have changed the face of the class and seemed poised for world domination.
But, according to them, Drag News also reported that Gerry Glenn had run not one but two 6.41s a month earlier at Lions Drag Strip, leading them to note, “So now we have three guys, in a span of two weeks, running identical fastest-ever times of 6.41 seconds, one of them in a rear-engine machine — and not one of them named Garlits.”
Interestingly, the same weekend (June 25-26) that Glenn ran his 6.41s, Ramsey and the K&C team were at Fremont, where they set the record at 6.51. Garlits, of course, would have the last laugh (as usual) when he ripped off a 6.21 later that year at Indy (not backed up for the record) and a few weeks later broke Ramsey's record with a 6.26 in Gaineville.
Don Hirsch, who calls himself my “fellow Irwindale pit rat,” pointed out something that I meant to but forgot to include in the article, which was a photo of the team’s very unique tool, a prosthetic leg — complete with a tennis shoe — that was wedged into the cockpit to hold the clutch pedal in when the team was towing or pushing the car through the pits. Hirsch spotted it propped against the back of the car in the photo of John Keeling. (T.J. Sitek also saw it but was a little more concerned: “What in the hell is a dismembered right leg with sock and shoe doing by the push bar alongside the Keeling & Clayton digger?") It was in fact a real prosthetic leg that once belonged to Chuck Johnson, a double-amputee Vietnam vet who owned the California Charger with Keeling before Clayton bought his share. When he got a new set of legs, he donated this one to the team.
In our interview last weekend, Clayton recalled how he and Keeling were able to take advantage of their jobs in the airline industry to get their hands on some new tech, but Pat “Ma” Green also remembered that “K&C were the only crew in drag racing using linen napkins for wipe rags!”
On a quick side note, when I called Clayton back this week for some of the answers above, he wanted to express how impressed he is with Don Schumacher's milestone 200th team win. "I've never met him and actually probably wasn't much of a fan, but I'm impressed with how long he's been doing this and kept it going and kept winning. That takes a lot of dedication," he said. "To be able to continue getting the funding takes as much dedication as the guy who wants to go racing but hasn't got the money. I can't imagine the number of people he has to have working with him to get that all done."
In what’s a bit of a mini-Where Are They Now? segment, Clive Banks dropped me a line and a link to a photo gallery of European cars that shows that the final California Charger, the Trans Am Funny Car, ended up in Europe as a Top Alcohol Funny Car for Steiner Stolen in the late 1970s early 1980s. This photo was taken by Steve Hope at Santa Pod. This is also the car that current Mello Yello star Cruz Pedregon re-created for the Nostalgia Funny Car ranks.
Wes Verinder wants to know if anyone has seen or knows what happened to the Pinto Funny Car. “Did it survive the journey through time in someone's barn or warehouse?” he asked. “I would love to make a bracket car out of it if I had the $$$$ to do the conversion.”
And, of course, everyone wants to know about the famous slingshot. “It truly was one of the most beautiful team cars ever built,” wrote Tim Fink. “Whatever became of it? So many rumors that it’s somewhere in the Northwest waiting for someone to pay an enormous amount of dollars to have it restored. Any ideas?”
Well, Tim, as a matter of fact, yes, we do know.
Don Long and John Rasmussen drove the chassis back to Don's shop from Brent Cannon's place in Wrightwood, Calif.
I got a great note and the photos at right from Paul Katata, a fabricator who has been working lately with Don Long (who built the California Chargers as well as the Steve Carbone dragster mentioned in my previous column) and helping to restore the famous front-engine California Charger car for current owner Brent Cannon as well as the Carbone car, which is the dragster involved in the infamous 1971 Nationals burndown with Garlits.
“Somewhere in the past, the car was converted to run as a bracket/Comp eliminator racer, although I'm not sure it ever actually ran in that configuration,” he wrote. “We moved the rear-end housing, changed the engine mounts back to an early Hemi, and replaced some of the original tubing and brackets. The car was otherwise mostly original. In fact, before we hung the chassis up in the rafters of Don's shop, we took careful measurements and documented everything we could to help on our next project. And that would be a re-creation of the previously mentioned car of Steve Carbone. The cars were close enough in order of leaving Don's shop back in the day that there are only a few differences. Of note are quick-release pins holding the engine in and a tilt back rear-end housing for maintenance purposes on Steve's car.
"Right now, there isn't a definite completion date for the California Charger. Work on the chassis is pretty much done. The body is still up at Brent's place and I'm told is mostly complete but is in need of a little work and, of course, paint and graphics. One thing worth noting: Most (if not all) of the aluminum parts on the chassis were not just polished but chrome plated, even the fuel tank and motor plate! I wasn't aware of this until Don and I began working on the car."
Thanks for all of the great info and pics everyone! See you next week.
You probably can’t call yourself a true fan of Top Fuel’s history if you don’t still salivate over the beautiful Keeling & Clayton Top Fuelers of the early 1970s. The original slingshot and the later rear-engine car were rolling works of art; with their classic blue-on-blue paint scheme, sparkling chrome, and crisp bodywork, they were everything that a Top Fueler ought to be.
A lot of people are familiar with the basic history of the team, which was fielded by John Keeling and Jerry Clayton. Driver Rick Ramsey brought them their first fame when he won the 1970 Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway in the slingshot, and John Stewart put the rear-engine car into the Cragar Five-Second Club two years later at OMS. The team later transitioned into Funny Cars that ran hard and looked good until the team disbanded in 1977.
And now, the story behind the story, as related to me by Clayton for a story I did on the car recently on NationalDragster.net that deserved more room than I had there.
Despite the California Charger name they eventually adopted when they moved to the Golden State, Keeling and Clayton both hailed from Illinois, where they first met in the early 1960s. They wouldn’t partner for another decade after both fortuitously moved west to follow their jobs, which both were in the airline industry. Clayton was a ground mechanic at Chicago’s O’Hare airport for United Airlines (maintaining all of the equipment except the planes) in 1961 when he first met Keeling, who was working on a car at the shop of magneto maestro Len Hughes and hung out at the same Sunoco gas station around the corner from Clayton’s apartment. Not long after that, Keeling also took a job at O’Hare as a ground mechanic, working for TWA.
The first California Charger was this car, with John Keeling, Chuck Johnson, and Leonard Van Louven, with driver Norm Wilcox. The extravagant rear bodywork and magnificent paint job came later. (Tom West photo)
Thanks to their jobs in the airline industry, both got to visit California and became tight with Leonard Van Louven, who worked for Isky and later Donovan, but the duo never got a chance to team up on a race car because Clayton got drafted into the army, so Keeling became partners with Dale Lepke on a car named The Intruder. After Clayton got out of the service, because he was too late to be involved with Keeling, he took up flying as a hobby while renting a room from Keeling’s mother, where all three lived together. Although he was qualified to fly, United wouldn’t give Clayton that chance in his current position, so he quit his maintenance job in September of 1968 — giving up nine years of seniority — and got himself rehired with the airline and got enrolled in the net new-pilot’s class.
While Clayton was earning his wings in Washington, D.C., Keeling got transferred to Los Angeles (LAX), where he built the first California Charger with Chuck Johnson, a Vietnam vet who had lost both legs below the knee. Norm Wilcox was their driver.
Fortuitously, Clayton also got transferred to L.A. in late 1969, just as Johnson had decided to get married and get out of racing. Clayton bought his half of the team for $2,000 just after the 1970 March Meet. Wilcox left soon thereafter to continue driving in Top Gas for Steve Levy, and 1969 world champ Steve Carbone, who was between rides between leaving Larry Huff’s Soapy Sales team and waiting for his new car to come out of Woody Gilmore’s shop, took over the wheel. Carbone drove for a few races but, more importantly, introduced the duo to Ramsey, “a long-haired, beach hippy-type who was afraid to meet me until after he had his hair cut,” Clayton remembered fondly. “At the time, as a low-seniority pilot on probation, my hair wasn't very long.”
Keeling, left, stands with the car at Ontario Motor Speedway; this shot and the one below shows off the car's distinctive rear bodywork.
Rick Ramsey (below) drove the beautiful car to its only national event win at the 1971 Supernationals (above), where he defeated Gerry Glenn in the final. A large version of this photo hung for years in the executive conference room at NHRA's headquarters in North Hollywood, Calif.
The front-engine car already had set the bar high on looks with a custom injector scoop and swoopy bodywork by Ken Ellis that ended with a hidden parachute pack, but Clayton’s rapidly rising pilot’s salary brought an infusion of cash that allowed them to start adding even more chromed parts and a beautiful nose by master metalsmith Tom Hanna. George Cerny repainted the car into its now familiar colors; Nat Quick was supposed to do the lettering but couldn’t make it (“guess the long-haired guys were all afraid of me,” Clayton quipped), so Kenny Youngblood, who was just beginning to make a name for himself, stepped in and did a great job.
The dragster won Best Appearing Car honors at the 1970 Supernationals and went on to win the event at which, ironically, they weren’t initially eligible to compete. Because Ramsey was new to the team, he didn’t have enough points to be invited to the Supernationals, but when one East Coast racer couldn’t make it, Division 7 Director Bernie Partridge went looking for a local substitute but insisted on a full-bodied car as opposed to a short-bodied, open-chassis “rail job.” The California Charger fit that bill nicely. They qualified on just one pass and went on to win the race, besting Gerry Glenn in the final.
The team was runner-up to Don Garlits early the next year at the March Meet and at the PDA (Professional Dragster Association) event at Orange County Int’l Raceway, where they famously defeated Don “the Snake” Prudhomme, who was driving his Hot Wheels wedge, on a holeshot in the semifinals in which both ran a 6.41 in what then was the quickest side-by-side race in Top Fuel history. Ramsey set the national record in the car in June of that year, running a 6.51 in Fremont, Calif., to better the 6.53 established the previous October by Tom Raley. The mark stood until Garlits bettered it in September.
“Ramsey would let people leave on him because about a third of the people we raced would red-light against us, so we could take it easy on that round,” Clayton recalled. “We didn’t rebuild the engine every round like they do now, and with a 32-car field, you needed one free round to get through it.”
Their success at the Supernationals brought in additional funding — primarily from the Lee Eliminators group — and allowed them to also field a Funny Car, a Pinto that Ramsey also drove, though they had to share their one engine between both cars, which hindered Ramsey’s success in the Pinto. “We were trying to put the power we made in the dragster to the ground in the Funny, and it wasn't going so well,” Clayton acknowledged.
A number of drivers followed Ramsey into the cockpit of the team’s Funny Cars, including Tom Ferarro, Dale Pulde (who filled in after the late Mike Snively, who had agreed to drive the car for the team but was a no-show for their first race; they later found out that he had committed suicide), Jake Johnston, Pat Foster, and, finally, Neil Leffler, who drove the team’s last car, a ’77 Trans Am that Cruz Pedregon recently re-created as a Nostalgia Funny Car. Like the dragsters, the Funny Cars were rolling showpieces, all painted in the familiar light-blue/dark-blue scheme.
Jake Johnston, second from left, drove the Keeling & Clayton machine to victory at the 1973 Professional Dragster Association meet at OCIR and received congratulations from the PDA's Doug Kruse. Keeling is far left; Clayton is second from right.
In the meantime, Keeling & Clayton had joined the rest of the Top Fuel crowd in moving to a rear-engine car — another beauty, painted the same and equipped with front-wheel pants. Ramsey initially drove the car before turning it over to Johnston, who drove the dragster to victory at the 1973 PDA event at Orange County Int’l Raceway. That victory, much like their Supernationals title, didn’t come as easy as it sounds. Johnston was doing double duty in both the dragster and the Funny Car but lost in the first round in both.
“Jake was late in the dragster, ran low e.t. of the round, burned a piston, and got beat and went to run the Funny. They had changed the timing to kill off some bottom-end power and didn't get the slip-on wire back on the points, and as the car came to a bouncing stop after the burnout, the wire fell off, and the car lost fire — two cars, lots of pre-race publicity about one driver running two cars, and two first-round losses,” recalled an exasperated Clayton, who then set about trying to get the dragster back in the field via the break rule.
The rules at the time allowed a first-round loser to re-enter competition if a winning car could not continue. According to Clayton, in this case, first choice to fill in went to the car that had been beaten by the now-broken car; the next alternate was the low e.t. loser, which was the Keeling & Clayton car.
“The other car also had hurt their engine but were thrashing to get it patched up for the second round, and they insisted that they would make it,” he remembered. “They wanted to buy one of our older magnetos from us, and they were using it so they could race; I asked for the money for the mag or the mag, and they said they were broke and we could go back in. But by then, I didn't have time to replace the piston, so I went with the old-school fix: short out the plug, put a blank nozzle in that hole, and run it. From then on, Jake ran a perfect race. He left on the guy and won the round, and we went back to the pits to fix the engine — front wheels on tailgate, people so thick around the car we had a hard time getting around them — ran the other three rounds, and won the race.”
John Stewart made the car even more famous by becoming the ninth driver in the Cragar Five-Second Club with a 5.92 clocking at the 1973 Supernationals. Stewart, a teenage sensation from Southern California, got the seat in the car when Ramsey moved on. Stewart had accumulated enough points to attend the 1973 World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, so Keeling and Clayton hired him to drive there, at the Supernationals, and a few other races.
After their Supernationals win, the team also began to field Funny Cars, including this Pinto, which reached for the sky in Irwindale, Calif. (below).
Dwight Hughes, who in a few months would become the 13th member of the Cragar Club in the Berry Bros. car, drove the California Charger at Ontario for a New Year’s Day race in 1974, but the dragster was parked soon after, and the team focused on Funny Cars through 1977, when Keeling and Clayton decided it was time to hang up the wrenches.
Clayton’s piloting workload grew ever more demanding as he flew larger and larger jets, culminating in a Boeing 777, and Keeling got married. The match race scene was beginning to dry up, some dragstrips were closing, and the duo decided it was time to call it a career. The legacy the two left, however, even in their short seven-year time span, won’t soon be forgotten.
Clayton also was proud of the innovations they brought to the sport. “Because we worked for the airlines, we saw a lot of neat technology that we tried to apply to our race cars, whether it was a lightweight part or even a new nut or bolt. The bolt that held our blower pulleys on was a 12-point bolt that no one had seen before. We were just itching for a place to put them on the car. We were exposed to this kind of stuff and had access to the equipment — at least what we could fit and take home in our lunch box,” he added with a laugh.
Keeling died of cancer in the mid-1990s. Clayton, now 71, began building Pro Stock and dirt-track engines, retired from flying in 1997, and remains an Illinois resident and proud of their accomplishments.
“That time was the highlight of my life,” said Clayton. “I’m very humbled that we’re fondly remembered. We were there such a short period of time compared to a lot of guys.”