Don Garlits showed that the rear-engine design was here to stay with a powerful victory at the 1971 NHRA Winternationals.
Although rear-engine Top Fuelers had found some limited success in 1970, it was Don Garlits’ powerful victory at the 1971 Winternationals that really turned the tide in favor of the new design. After scoring runner-ups at Lions Drag Strip and Orange County Int’l Raceway in the weeks preceding the Winternationals, “Big Daddy” put the detractors to rest in Pomona the first week of February.
As previously reported, a lot of people were looking askance and rolling their eyes at his Swamp Rat 14 when he rolled it out of the trailer at Lions a few weeks before the Winternationals, including, according to him, fellow chassis builders Woody Gilmore and Don Long. “It was funny,” he shared with me. “Both of these builders looked at my car at Lions, and I personally heard them tell customers that they could see right away what I was doing wrong.” According to Garlits, Don Prudhomme took a walk around the car and dismissively remarked, “Well, that’s one way to get publicity.”
Garlits also says that no one wanted to make time-trial runs next to him at Lions and was told by Lions manager C.J. Hart – who had witnessed Pat Foster’s terrifying tumble in December 1969 -- that if he crossed any of the barrier lines, the car would have to go back into the trailer. Garlits put all that aside, was runner-up to Gary Cochran’s slingshot, then duplicated that feat the next weekend at Orange County Int’l Raceway before heading to Pomona for the car’s official coming out.
Garlits didn’t initially have the quickest machine in Pomona, where the tight 32-car field was separated by just .33-second, perhaps thanks to traction compound that had been sprayed – via helicopter! – on the track Thursday. Norm Wilcox qualified No. 1 in "Terrible Ted" Gotelli's Northern California-based entry with a 6.70, just ahead of the surprise 6.73 from John Nichols in Jerry Dee Hagood's locally based Spartan Charger. Henry Harrison’s 6.76 at 223.32 (top speed of the meet) in the Ewell & Bell digger was third, just ahead of the 6.77 clocked by Pete Robinson, who was killed in an accident on the pass after his innovative ground-effects system malfunctioned.
Garlits was just the No. 9 qualifier with a mid-6.80 pass, but that all changed in eliminations. After a middling 6.85 win over Tommy Allen in round one – Harrison’s stunning 6.61 against Ronnie Martin was tops for the round, and the meet -- Garlits had low e.t. of the next three rounds, running a pair of 6.72s to beat Nichols and Carl Olson and then a 6.70 to beat Jim Dunn in the semifinals. Garlits’ final-round opponent, Kenny Safford in Larry Bowers’ car, was unable to make the call after a clutch swap between rounds, and Garlits, perhaps loaded for bear to put an exclamation point on his win, smoked his way to a 7.03.
Garlits didn't have the only rear-engine car at the event. This is Chuck Tanko's super-long (254-inch wheelbase) car. Driver Ken Ellis didn't make the field.
By the way, Garlits didn’t have the only rear-engine car in Pomona; a couple of cars that I mentioned last week -- Chuck Tanko’s super-long RCS-built machine with driver Ken Ellis and Tom Kaiser in the former Widner & Dollins car – also tried but failed to make the field. Ellis only made one pass in Pomona before withdrawing for unknown reasons.
(Interesting side note: The 1971 season was the first in which the class was officially called Top Fuel after NHRA replaced its previously official designation of AA/FD, which certainly made it simpler and perhaps more attractive to the mainstream fans and media. Similarly, AA/GD became Top Gas.)
Just five weeks after winning the Winternationals, Garlits also won the fabled March Meet in Bakersfield. In a theme similar to his Pomona conquest, Garlits started slow – he qualified just No. 14 at 6.79; Larry Dixon Sr. was low at 6.64 – but came on strong in eliminations. He beat his January slingshot nemesis, Cochran, in Carl Casper’s Young American, with a 6.72 that was second only to Prudhomme’s 6.69, then improved to a 6.68 in round two and a 6.67 in the quarterfinals to edge Prudhomme, who reportedly had Garlits covered until he banged the blower at the first light and slowed to a 6.72. It’s interesting to note that Prudhomme was still running his Long-built front-engine Hot Wheels car (the so-called “slab-sided” car) but had removed almost all of the bodywork, perhaps in a weight-savings ploy.
After a semifinal 6.71 over Watus Simpson (driving Vance Hunt’s entry with an engine donated between rounds by Don Cook), Garlits squared off in the final with 1970 Supernationals champ Rick Ramsey and the front-engine California Charger of Keeling & Clayton. Ramsey outran Garlits by a ton – his 6.642 reset low e.t. of the meet – but “Big Daddy” got there first win a ginormous holeshot and became the first Top Fuel driver to win the fabled meet twice.
(Above) In this remarkable photo from the 1971 March Meet, Garlits can be seen at left flashing the "V for victory" sign in the lights after driving by Don Prudhomme in the quarterfinals; note that "the Snake's" blower is askew. (Below) Garlits sealed his second big NHRA win of the season by defeating 1970 Supernationals champ Rick Ramsey on a huge final-round holeshot.
If the Pomona win had not been enough to convince the masses that Garlits had it right, the Bakersfield win surely did.
Even before Bakersfield, National Dragster announced that John Buttera had begun work on a wild new rear-engine machine for Prudhomme that would become his short-lived Hot Wheels wedge, and rear-engine dragsters began to show up across the country, with even slingshot heroes like former world champ Bennie “the Wizard” Osborn and Jim Nicoll (with driver Billy Tidwell) – who survived his harrowing clutch explosion at the previous year’s Nationals -- making the move.
Garlits qualified low at his hometown Gatornationals with a 6.53 -- and from what I could tell by looking though photos and event coverage, he had the only rear-engine car on the grounds -- but shut down too soon against eventual runner-up Sarge Arciero in round two and lost. Arciero finished behind Jimmy King to temporarily put the slingshots back atop the pack.
(Above) Iowa farmer Earl Binns received one of Garlits' earliest rear-engine customer cars. (Below) Garlits added a wing to his own car in the spring and won with it on the car at the NHRA Springnationals in Dallas.
Garlits, meanwhile, had taken several orders for cars, first among them from his old buddies Chris Karamesines and Tom McEwen, but the first to make a splash was Iowa’s Earl “the Fuelin’ Farmer” Binns, who debuted his rear-engine Garlits car in early April at Continental Divide Raceway’s Colorado Fuel Open, where Kaiser also had his car in competition. They bowed out in rounds one and two, respectively.
Before long, many of the major chassis builders, including Gilmore, Long, Roy Fjastad, and Frank Huszar, were taking orders left and right.
Garlits won again at the NHRA Springnationals in Dallas, setting low e.t. and top speed and defeating John Wiebe’s slingshot in the final. By now, Garlits’ dragster was sporting a rear wing, which he had added after the Gatornationals.
“After Pomona, I flew home to Tampa [Fla.], sitting beside Jim Hall of Chaparral fame; we talked about the car moving around a little on slick tracks in the middle,” Garlits told me last week. “Jim suggested a small wing to give me a little downforce without sacrificing a lot of drag. We got on that immediately. The small wing gave us .25-second better e.t. and a full 10 mph!”
Garlits’ rear-engine car wasn’t the only one running well in Dallas. Former Funny Car driver Arnie Behling wheeled Bruce Dodd’s new Gilmore-built, John "Tarzan" Austin-wrenched Spirit – with a wing mounted just behind the engine -- to the No. 3 qualifying spot behind Garlits and Wiebe. Prudhomme also debuted his radical wedge rear-engine dragster at this event – and scored Best Engineered Car honors – and qualified No. 17 but bowed out of his much-anticipated scheduled first-round race with Garlits due to a reported parts shortage; he also was running his Funny Car and his old front-engine car (Mike Snively driving) at the event. No fewer than six rear-engine cars were at the event, including the trio mentioned above as well as Binns (who was tearing it up in Division 5), Osborn, and Gary Bailey.
At the 1971 Summernationals in Englishtown, Behling, Dodd, and Austin became the second rear-engine national event winners and almost won again at the next event, the inaugural Grandnational in Quebec, but the slingshots would not easily give up the ground they had long dominated. Pat Dakin (and a broken rear end) stopped Behling in the Canada final, and then Steve Carbone and his front-engine car famously upset Garlits in the burndown in Indy. Gerry Glenn and Bill Schultz, whose stretched front-engine car had run the quickest e.t. in history that summer with a 6.41 (Garlits later ran a stunning 6.21 in Indy), won the World Finals (and the championship with it) over Garlits, and Hank Johnson beat Wiebe in an all-slingshot climax to the Supernationals. By the end of 1972, however, only Art Marshall would win again in a front-engine car [read The Slingshot's Last Hurrah].
Chassis builders, of course, were always the first to see the trend, based on their order books. I developed a couple of case studies using interviews with Southern California masters Gilmore and Long as well as some of their earliest customers as source material.
(Above) Woody Gilmore's first rear-engine NHRA Top Fuel win came with Arnie Behling in Bruce Dodd's Spirit at the 1971 Summernationals. (Below) Jeb Allen was another racer who got one of Gilmore's earliest models.
Gilmore’s biggest early rear-engine success, as noted, was the Dodd/Behling machine, which scored a win and a runner-up in 1971, but he also found early customers in two drivers who would go on to greater success: Jeb Allen and Olson.
Gilmore was friends with the Allen family – having built their previous front-engine cars for Jr. Fuel and Top Fuel – and patriarch Guy worked alongside Gilmore in his Race Car Engineering shop, trading labor in part for the cost to build his son’s car, which Gilmore remembers was the “fourth or fifth” rear-engine car to come out of his shop that year.
“When Garlits came along, everyone jumped on the bandwagon,” Gilmore said. “After that, I only built a few more front-engined cars, plus I also started building more Funny Cars, too, as they became more popular.”
Allen, who had spent the previous summer wrenching on Carbone’s car, had wanted no part in following his brother, Leslie, into the seat of a slingshot Top Fuel car, but when he saw the rear-engine car, he was hooked. Although he did license in the family’s slingshot at age 17, he only drove it on about a dozen runs before his new car was ready in late spring. He debuted the car at one of Lions’ weekly shows but only ran the car once more that season, at the year-ending Supernationals, where he impressed with a semifinal finish, falling to Wiebe in the final four. Allen would go on to win the Summernationals the next year to become the youngest Top Fuel winner in history (18 years, 1 month), a mark that still stands.
Carl Olson loved being behind the engine early in his dragster career but came to peace quickly with the new design; a Winternationals win didn't hurt.
Gilmore fit Olson for his first rear-engine car; that's partner Mike Kuhl at right. "Woody did a great job of making the car as comfortable as possible for the driver, which I deeply appreciated," said Olson. (Steve Reyes photo)
Olson and Mike Kuhl had considerably more Top Fuel experience than Allen, and Olson wasted no time getting acclimated – and quick – with their new machine.
“Our car was finished in June of 1971. We first ran it at Lions the day it was finished and ran the quickest we ever had by a full tenth on the very first pass,” he recalled. “We ran it locally a couple times at Lions and OCIR, then we hauled it back to Indy for the Nationals, where we won the Best Appearing Car award and ran very well [No. 3 qualifier behind Garlits and Carbone and a semifinal finish].
“Naturally, I was a bit concerned about how the change from FED to RED would affect me. The FED was an absolutely awesome ride, especially at night. With the front wheels dangling in the air, the tires hazing white smoke, and the engine belching huge nitro flames high into the air (only to watch them bend backward as the car gained momentum), followed by the almost assured loss of vision near the finish line due to various liquids gathering on one's goggles, it made for an experience second to none. And oh, how great it felt when the chute blossomed and you could pull your goggles down and start looking for the turnout after another thrilling pass.
“To be perfectly honest, the RED wasn't nearly as thrilling as the FED, but the REDs were much more comfortable. Right at the top of the comfort list was the ability to actually see where you were going instead of looking directly at the back of a 6-71 supercharger and fuel injector and looking at the few degrees of peripheral vision between the blower/injector and the header flames. Also, no longer having your legs draped over the rear-end housing with the ring and pinion gears mere fractions of an inch from your private parts made things much more comfortable as well.
"Unlike some others, I considered the RED to be much safer due to the lack of oil, fuel, water, and fire in my face. I did have some concern about potentially running under a single Armco guardrail but fortunately never had that happen to me as a few others unfortunately did. Double Armco and concrete barriers (which I pushed very hard for) helped to lessen or eliminate that particularly disastrous potential tragedy in the making. I came to love the REDs and at least partially because they were easier to drive and were much more comfortable, but I still consider my days at the controls of an FED to be the most exciting driving experiences of my life. Yeah, those were the days.”
Unlike Garlits, Kuhl and Olson ran the entire season without a rear wing (basically because they couldn’t afford one), but after Olson opened the 1972 season with his first NHRA win at the Winternationals, they quickly added one.
“Everyone was running pretty good without one, so we didn’t think it was imperative,” he recalled of the decision to forgo a wing, “but once we had some cash jingling in our jeans, the first thing we did was have Woody build us a wing. It didn’t help so much performance-wise, but stability-wise, it was like night and day. The car was stuck to the ground and went where you pointed it; before that, it was a challenge to do that. We kicked ourselves for not doing it sooner. Once we figured out and made some changes to accommodate for the wing, we probably picked up a full tenth of a second just by being planted to the ground.”
It didn’t take very long for Long to get his first order for a rear-engine car; according to Long’s meticulous bookkeeping, Tommy Larkin placed his request Jan. 11, just three days after Garlits' runner-up at Lions. Larkin’s was car No. 66 to enter the jig at Long's hallowed shop, and the first rear-engine car, but it was not the first to hit the track. It would, in fact, be almost a full year before the first Long-built rear-engine car – ordered by Wes Cerny in late June -- actually hit the track and, between those two rear-engine cars, Long had built and delivered a conventional slingshot to Jackie Peebles, the last front-engine dragster he would build.
The challenge of switching from a front-engine to a rear-engine car is daunting from the team aspect, but from the builder standpoint, Long was unfazed.
“It was easy, no big deal,” he remembered. “Most all the tooling was usable when simply moved on the chassis jig. The only part of the first rear-engine chassis that I remember going through an improvement was the bay between the driver and engine. It took a few chassis to get the tubing arranged to a better design, and when it got there, the industry followed. The Top Fuel chassis are still built this way today.
“Additionally, I am sure there was a business and enthusiasm factor during the transition stages. The REDs were perceived as a new product with innovation potentials that would obsolete the somewhat uninteresting repetitious FEDs. Back then, we had two major drivers of chassis sales: obsolescence and destruction.”
Long is a truly fascinating man. He’s strongly opinionated and deeply invested in the science of going fast. I think that all chassis builders probably have a bit of mad scientist in them, eager to experiment and innovate, and Long is clearly not just a guy who bends tubes and welds them together. (See Hot Rod magazine’s Take Five with Don Long for more insight into the man.) I asked him when he remembered seeing his first rear-engine dragster and why he didn’t build one before 1971.
“The first RED that I remember seeing in person was one built by John Peters and Nye Frank around 1960,” he remembered. “It was a tube-frame, short, Olds-powered RED and driven once by a guy named Jack [Gordon]. Jack’s only run was very short. The dragster was upside-down by the time it reached the tower at Lions. It wasn’t a good 'first Impression' for anyone. I never knew the cause, only that Peters and Frank moved on to FEDs.
“As years passed, the RED’s record got questionable, sometimes positive as found in the Speed Sport Roadster and sometimes negative as found when some strip owners didn’t want them around. Being as how the RED record was questionable, what I knew about aft C/G stability, virtually all winners were FEDs. I was told VWs and Corvairs handled ‘differently,’ but Porsches handled great. I didn’t see them as unworkable or vice versa. I just had a wait-and-see attitude. I certainly could not afford -- both financially and by reputation -- to be a ‘scout’ for the chassis industry. I played it safe as I did with heavy streamliners and heavy ‘lost-motion’ suspensions. ‘Decrease d-mass D. Long’ is my creed, and it is fixed in the most important formula of all for acceleration: F=ma [force equals mass times acceleration].”
Don Long's first rear-engine car for Wes Cerny and Don Moody featured a T-tail rear stabilizer, a precursor to Garlits' more modern "monowing."
Cerny, who was already running a front-engine car with driver Don Moody, ordered his car June 29, 1971, and it was delivered Nov. 13, just days before the season-ending Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway.
The Cerny & Moody car was especially memorable for its T-tail rear stabilizer, a fin mounted vertically between the rear wheels with small canard wings near the top on each side. At this time, few of the new rear-engine dragsters had rear wings as we know them today, and one might easily conclude that Long’s wing was the predecessor for the “monowing” like the one Garlits would make famous with his later Swamp Rats.
“The idea was rooted in the poor overall record of REDs at the time, and a nature law of stability -- separation between the center of gravity and the center of pressure (like an arrow and parachute),” said Long. “In layman’s terms, for horizontal stability, one wants the weight in front and the drag in back, and the tail (or rudder) is somewhat of a ‘stability on demand’ answer. It was an idea ahead of its time.
“To this day, I do not FULLY buy into the Garlits story about slowing down the steering as the one thing that he did for acceptable handling unless the steering was too fast to begin with. My REDs never had this problem, and their steering ratio was pretty much the same as my previous FEDs. I believe the biggest thing that helped REDs' handling was the rear wing, which simply moved the center of pressure rearward."
Don Moody has gone from four wheels to two but is still rolling.
We see what you mean, Moody. What could compare to this?
I exchanged emails with Cerny and Moody, who remain close friends some 45 years later despite their geographical distances. Cerny recently traveled to Thailand, where Moody lives, to ride bicycles; Moody is a fanatic about bike riding, usually putting in 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) a day.
Cerny remembered that they still had time for test runs with the new rear-engine car at Lions before heading to the Supernationals, where fuel-system problems kept them from qualifying. They ran the 1972 Winternationals, and the new tires they had loaded their old iron 392 so heavy that it split the block, sending the crankshaft out the bottom.
Moody remembered this being a tough time for the team, especially the driver.
“That was an indecisive time for us, due to a couple of factors,” he said. “We had ordered up the new rear chassis in hopes it would be quicker and more consistent, but at the same time, our front-engine car was working very well. We had just changed to Goodyear tires, which were good for a tenth consistently and easier to drive. We won seven of our last nine races with this combination along with new track e.t. records, but we were between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. On the first run with the new rear-engine car, I realized that we made a ‘mistake’; it ran no better than the front-engine car. Maybe more consistent but no quicker. Both cars ran a 6:37 as best.
“As far as driving goes, the rear-engine cars were not as exciting and nowhere near as much fun … for me anyway! Sitting out in front was like being perched on a fence -- no more wheelstands and driving with the seat of your pants trying to keep the car in your lane. Should the rear-engine car get out of shape, you had to lift because you were always behind on reactions with the engine and pivot point behind. In the early days, several drivers tried to drive the car crossed up; this normally ended in disaster. I do remember the rear-engine car was more sensitive to steering inputs. With a front-engine car, you more or less guided it down the track; with the rear-engine, you steered down the track. As a rule, the new rear-engine car would go straight as an arrow; it was quite boring, but, saying that, my firesuit stayed much cleaner with no clutch dust mixed with the traction compound in the burnout box. I guess that part was a plus? <grin>
“As far as getting comfortable with the rear-engine car, I’m not sure ‘comfortable’ is the term. I was ready to race it as soon as we took it out of the trailer, and I used the same starting-line measures that we had used with the front-engine car. It was all quite successful, but sitting in front vs. behind was similar to a black and white movie to Technicolor. I felt I had a front-row seat, out in front of everyone (all I needed was a program); this probably added to the boredom. Don't get me wrong here. I've never been lackadaisical about driving or riding anything; I was always aware and had great respect for these things. But front- or rear-engine? Rear-engine was a consistent winner but nothing as exciting as pulling to the starting line at night trying to see the Tree between the blower and the fire from the headers (with leaky port nozzles, I might add, since it gets real hot), the light flickers, and hit the loud pedal! The front-engine fuel car was an E-ticket ride.”
The Walton-Cerny-Moody car, their second rear-engine car from Long, set the world on its ear with a win and stunning 5.91 at the 1972 Supernationals.
Cerny sold the car to Lyle Dill in the spring of 1971 and, with partner and longtime friend Doug Walton, had Long build the Walton, Cerny & Moody car – car No. 77 for Long -- which also incorporated a new 426 powerplant and, much to Moody’s delight, the change from direct drive to a Lenco two-speed transmission (“Something for the driver to do!” he exulted).
“We knew that we needed more power, so we tried to decide on a Donovan 417 block or a 426 engine,” recalled Moody. “It was Wes’ decision (and I agreed) that we go with a new car (again) and a Keith Black 480-inch ‘late model.’ My feeling was the late model had a better RPM range, giving it longer legs, and since we were going to use a Lenco two-speed, it would still run better than everyone else out there. (Ha ha, I was never the smartest guy around, but I was good friends with those who were pretty clever.) Anyway, to make a long story short, the new Don Long with a Keith Black 480 engine cleaned up the bog, so to speak, and this combination was very successful.”
That’s a bit of an understatement. In addition to winning the huge-for-then $35,000 purse at the PRA National Challenge in Tulsa, Okla., they won the 1972 Supernationals with a staggering 5.91-second elapsed time and finished the year by being the last track record holder at Lions with a 6.01 at The Last Drag Race.
“Looking back at it all, we consistently ran four-tenths of a second quicker by going to the rear-engine car in less than a year’s time,” reflected Moody. “So there it is: the rear-engine car was by far the best deal for us and drag racing.
“But that didn't make it any less boring,” he added wryly.
Boring or not, as Moody noted, the design forever changed the sport, and certainly for the better. The rapid drop in elapsed time -- from Prudhomme’s 6.43 at the end of 1970 to Garlits’ 6.21 by the end of 1971 to Moody’s 5.91 by the end of 1972 was stunning, and the best speed went from 235 to 243 mph – notwithstanding, the safety factor and peace of mind that it gave drivers, owners, crew chiefs, and even fans was easily worth any low e.t.
Sure, anyone who ever saw front-engine cars run misses them, but 40 years and many design changes later, Top Fuelers are still the greatest and most awesome racing machines on the planet and one of the many reasons we all love this sport.
Next week: Some early trailblazing rear-engined dragsters from the 1950s and '60s
Last week’s column about John Wiebe, one of the last and best holdouts of the traditional slingshot Top Fuel design, and our other discussions of the 1971 and 1972 seasons got me to thinking about this tide-changing period in the life of Top Fuel.
We all know that Don Garlits traditionally gets the lion’s share of credit for the rear-engine Top Fueler because it was he who perfected – at least in the national spotlight – the design and proved with his victory at the 1971 Winternationals that it worked.
The legend and imagery of that tale is just so great -- of Garlits, maimed by an explosion in his front-engine Swamp Rat 13 in March 1970, lying in his bed at Pacific Hospital in Long Beach, Calif., sketching designs for his game-changing next car, then winning in the car’s national event debut less than a year later – that it has become mythical in our sport and the accomplishment included almost anytime he is lauded.
Months after winning the Winternationals, John Mulligan died as the result of burns suffered in a fire at the Nationals over Labor Day weekend in 1969.
Don Garlits lost half of his right foot in this transmission explosion in Swamp Rat 13 at Lions Drag Strip March 8, 1970.
Jim Nicoll was lucky to walk away from a terrifying clutch explosion in his slingshot in the final round of the 1970 Nationals.
My respect for Garlits and all that he has accomplished and pioneered is off the charts, and, no doubt, Garlits, T.C. Lemons, and Connie Swingle deserve full credit for putting in the hard work of refining the concept -- I’d recommend you get your hands on the authoritative Don Garlits R.E.D. two-book set by Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson and maybe check out this Insider column from way back in 2008 -- and for changing the face of the sport through their success with the design, but even Garlits acknowledges in his book Don Garlits and His Cars that there were plenty of rear-engine cars before his. And even as we focus the thought to “modern-day Top Fuel dragster,” the Tampa gang was certainly the most successful but not the first by any stretch of the imagination. It has been pretty well-documented that there were at least a half-dozen “modern-day” predecessors to Garlits’ legendary machine, but we’ll get to all of that in a bit.
Like all of my “great ideas” for a column, this one quickly mushroomed out of control as my list of people whom I wanted/needed to interview grew from three to about 10 as new evidence continued to crop up. The story grew arms and legs and even fingers and became too much to jam in this week, so it will be a two-parter and include interviews with legendary chassis builders Woody Gilmore and Don Long and some of their earliest rear-engine customers (Jeb Allen and Carl Olson for Gilmore and Wes Cerny/Don Moody and Tommy Larkin for Long). Of course, I also needed to speak to Garlits and one of his first rear-engine customers, Tom McEwen.
All of that will come next week, but first, a little background that precedes Garlits’ historic victory in Pomona.
That a need existed for a new paradigm in Top Fuel was evident in the late 1960s. Although teams were still making performance improvements with the slingshot design – 1968’s widely recognized best e.t was 6.54, and by the end of 1969 (if you discount the wild 6-teens and 6.20s handed out like free popcorn in notoriously clock-happy Gary, Ind.), it had dropped to 6.43 – injuries and even death were a constant companion as engines, clutches, and bellhousings, pushed to and beyond their limits, began to give out with an alarming frequency, claiming heroes like Mike Sorokin. The aforementioned 6.43 was clocked by John Mulligan in qualifying No. 1 at the 1969 Nationals, but a disintegrating clutch in round one led to a terrible fire that ultimately claimed his life. Add in Garlits losing half of his right foot in the Lions transmission explosion and Jim Nicoll riding out his terrifying tumble alongside Don Prudhomme after a clutch explosion in the 1970 Nationals final, and you can see that it was a terrifying time to drive a fuel dragster.
(Keep in mind also that front-engine Indy cars had fallen out of favor -- the last one competed at the 1968 Indy 500 -- as the idea of safety and better directional stability and weight distribution became points of discussion.)
Tire technology had also caught up to drag racing, and the crowd-pleasing, quarter-mile rooster tails of tire smoke were quickly going away as the cars hooked better. The slingshot’s inherent advantage – having the driver weight over the rear tires for enhanced traction – now became a detraction, and the cars began to wheelstand more often, leading to the addition of up to 100 pounds of lead ballast on the front axle to keep the car earthbound. Changing the center of gravity would certainly help, and having the driver in front of the engine certainly was one way to accomplish that.
So, who had the first modern-day rear-engine Top Fuel dragster? It’s tough to say, but I do know that several of my past columns have uncovered multiple rear-engine Top Fuelers that predate Swamp Rat 14.
You may remember that in April 2010, I wrote about the STP Drag Wedge (above), which STP founder and Indy car entrepreneur Andy Granatelli commissioned from Dave Miller, who then worked at the Logghe Stamping Co. I don’t have an exact timeline of the car’s debut, but it was featured in the September 1969 issue of Hot Rod, which, with the traditional three-month lead time of the monthly magazines, means it was running as early as June 1969. I’m not by any means saying it was the first, but it’s an early entry for sure.
Gilmore had wanted to build a rear-engine Top Fueler for years before he finally achieved his dream in late 1969. Spurred by the death of Mulligan, a good friend and longtime customer, Gilmore and hired hand Pat Foster finally put together a rear-engine car that debuted in December with Leland Kolb’s engine for power.
“The year before, I had built a rear-engined Funny Car for Doug Thorley; I was really into Indy cars and Formula 1 at the time,” Gilmore recalled. “I took that inspiration and carried it into drag racing.”
Thorley’s Javelin, which had a 116-inch wheelbase, was lost in a crash at Irwindale Raceway in June 1969, and the same fate befell the Foster-driven dragster on one of its early runs at Lions Drag Strip.
In Gilmore’s mind, the reason for the crash is clear. At the insistence of Kolb and some others from his team who were afraid that the car was going to flip overbackward on launch, at the last minute, they installed a short tripod wheelie bar, with a single wheel just a few inches behind the rear axle and 4 inches off the ground. The car began to rock side to side and got up on the fifth wheel, which caused the car to tip onto one slick and go out of control. Possibly also contributing to the crash was the driveline setup, which was unique in that the engine was just 19 inches out from the inverted and reversed rear end (28 to 29 inches later became the norm).
In an interview on the We Did It For Love website, Foster recalled the experience.
“The first time out, at [Orange County Int’l Raceway] in December 1969, all went well until about half-track, at which time the car became very evil. We worked on slowing the steering ratio down [from 6:1 to 10:1] and went to Irwindale [Raceway] for more testing. It was better, but it still got very spooky at about 800 feet. After getting some new steering arms, the following weekend we arrived at ‘the Beach’ [Lions Drag Strip] full of confidence and ready to show the world the way of the future. She handled like a dream, on a string, moving hard the first half and settled in for a run to the eyes. About 50 feet before the first light, it went straight up, got up on a short single wheelie wheel, and cleared the right-side guardrail by five feet. I impacted a pole at 220 something [mph]. Myself and the front half of the car dropped to the bottom of the pole while the rear half with the engine went through the spectator parking lot and ended up almost on Willow Street.”
"I had about five orders for rear-engine cars at that time but they all canceled after Patty crashed," remembers Gilmore. "Everyone was skeptical about back-motored cars."
With lessons learned from that experiment, Gilmore and Foster built another for Dwane Ong, whose entry, named the Pawnbroker (for the 1964 movie of the same name), did remarkably well and should be considered the first truly successful rear-engine Top Fueler. (And yes, it’s Dwane, not Duane, as I and many others have erroneously written it throughout the years.)
I was thrilled to be able to track down Ong – he doesn’t use a computer or email, but a friend who runs a Facebook page for him gave me his number -- and get his memories of that time and that car, memories and details that remain very clear 45 years later.
(Above) Dwane Ong unveiled his Torque Pawnbroker at a trade show in Las Vegas in early 1970. (Below) Ong later added vertical stabilizers to the car.
(Photos from the Dwane Ong collection)
Ong had been running a Gilmore-built front-engine car that he had purchased from the his Detroit neighbors on the Ramchargers team and had a new sponsor pending for 1970 with Hastings Manufacturing to promote its new product, Torque, an oil additive similar to STP. Late in 1969, he approached Gilmore about building him a new car.
“Woody asked me, ’Do you want to be a guinea pig?’ and he told me about the rear-engined car that he and Patty had built and were just about ready to test. He told me he thought the rear-engined car was going to be the future of Top Fuel. After the car crashed at ‘the Beach,’ Woody said he wanted to think things over for a few weeks to decide if he still wanted to go that route. Two days later, he called me back and told me he’d made his mind up and was going to build a new rear-engine car with or without me. I said I’d take it. Hastings liked the idea because they knew that if it worked, it would get them a lot more publicity.”
The car was delivered in time for Ong to run it at the March Meet in Bakersfield, and, like most of the early models, it did not have a rear wing, but at the suggestion of a friend of Gilmore’s, who was in the aerospace industry, Ong added two vertical stabilizers behind the engine in an attempt to counteract the car’s perceived tendency to rock side to side (thought to be the cause of the Foster crash). He doesn’t have any idea if they helped, but “We needed a place for decals anyway,” he said with a chuckle.
Ong reports that the car always went straight (“It was boring to drive; I almost didn’t have to steer it,” he said), but it hooked so hard that the clutch wore so badly, often wearing .150- to .200-inch off the discs on each run. Marv Rifchin, of M&H Tires, helped solve the problem by offering Ong narrower tires – 10 to 11 inches wide and mounted on 15-inch wheels (“They looked like Super Stock tires!” Ong remembered) versus 12-inch-wide tires on 16-inch wheels – that not only reduced the clutch wear to .030- to .035-inch per run, but, more important, also improved performance by more than two-tenths of a second.
Garlits, still months from making his first runs in his first rear-engine car, checked out Ong's ride in August 1970.
Bernie Schacker's self-built dragster was probably the first to run a rear wing.
These improvements helped him win the AHRA Nationals at New York National Speedway in late August. Garlits was at this race and, according to Ong, gave the car a thorough look-see, paying special interest to the front-steering setup and going as far as removing the nose of the car (with permission) to check it out. Garlits has publicly disputed the notion that he would ever ask anyone to remove body panels, but Garlits did confirm to me via email that he did ask for and receive permission to sit in the cockpit of Ong’s car. “I just sat in Dwane’s car for a few minutes, and the vision was unreal!” he responded. “I wondered right then what in the hell was wrong that these cars didn’t work and everybody have one!”
Ong, who by this time was running a Ramchargers-built powerplant, also claims that he was the first in the sixes and to exceed 200 mph in a rear-engine car in June. Around this time, East Coast veteran Bernie Schacker had a rear-engine car that also
reportedly ran in the sixes in May but I wasn’t able to independently verify either of their claims.
(Update: Bret Kepner and a few others directed me to Drag News, Volume 15, Issue 47, which reports that Schacker ran 6.98, 192.70 to lose to Fred Forkner’s front-engine 6.92, 194.38 in the Top Fuel final round of New York National Speedway’s independent Spring Nationals. "Bernie was definitely the first under seven-flat [in a rear-engine car]," writes Kepner.)
Although Ong did run a few NHRA races – most notably just missing the Nationals field – he mostly campaigned on the AHRA circuit but only ran the car the one season before deciding to go back behind the engine in Funny Car after partnering with Ray Gallagher to run the Trader Ray flopper, also built by Gilmore. Ong did that for a couple of years and retired from racing after the 1974 season.
The Widner & Dollins rear-engine car, built by Mark Williams, also competed in 1970, with Dan Widner at the wheel. (Below) This car did not have a rear wing but included a small kicked-up section at the rear for downforce.
The other rear-engine car of real prominence that began running in 1970 was built by Mark Williams for Dan Widner and Mike Dollins. Williams began construction of the car in December 1969 and completed it in April 1970. The car, which cost just $2,111.16 to build, was the 59th chassis to come off of Williams’ jig. It was his first rear-engine car and had a lengthy wheelbase of 235 inches; typical front-engine cars of the era had 180-inch wheelbases, though some were longer.
“I had built front-engined cars for [Widner and Dollins], and we had talked about everyone getting oil and fire in their face; it wasn’t a very pleasant deal,” recalled Williams. “There had been other people who tried to build rear-engined cars, but they weren’t very successful because the wheelbase was too short. I felt that the wheelbase had to be longer for two reasons: to get the static weight distribution that you needed and to give the driver the same perspective he had with a front-engine car [relative to how far the front wheels were from the driver].”
Williams remembers that, despite the new design, the car tracked straight from the first hit and that the biggest problem that drivers faced was awareness of losing traction; they no longer could just glance sideways and see their slicks lit up in tire smoke or have a cockpit filled with smoke.
Williams remembered that Widner and Dollins did not run the car much due to financial reasons and that the car later came into the hands of the Colorado-based Kaiser brothers, who campaigned it with a degree of success though their efforts were no doubt hampered by their use of a budget-minded 354 Hemi instead of a 392. Despite proving that the concept could work, Williams built seven more slingshots before his next rear-engine car, which was built for Paul Gommi for the 1971 season.
According to Bryant and Hutcheson, even Garlits’ old partner, Art Malone, had run a rear-engine dragster before him, running one for six months in 1970 before dismissing it as “a fun project,” and the April 1971 issue of Drag Racing USA spotlighted the incredibly long (254-inch wheelbase!) rear-engine dragster of speed-shot maven Chuck Tanko, which was built by Frank Huszar’s Race Car Specialties shop in Southern California’s San Fernando Valley. Again, because of the lead time, this car probably was running (the article included a burnout photo) in January 1971, about the time that Garlits officially debuted his car. Ken Ellis, who built the car’s body, drove the car, which weighed a portly 1,375 pounds. The car, dubbed the National Speed Products Research entry, went 7.20s at 210 mph in its shakedown runs, but I can’t find any other mention of it after that.
So, as you can see, there were a lot of predecessors to Garlits’ car, though, with the exception of a few hits by the Kaisers, Ong, and Schacker, rear-engine cars were mostly misses, and Garlits does deservedly get the credit for proving – after much trial and error with the steering geometry -- the design’s worthiness.
Anyone who snickered – and there were quite a few – when Garlits unloaded his trailer at Lions for AHRA’s 1971 season-opening Grand American event Jan. 8-10 were at least partially silenced as he clocked a 6.60 – just .05-second off the track record – and went on to score runner-up honors behind “Mr. C,” Gary Cochran and his slingshot entry. A week later, Garlits was again runner-up, this time at the PDA event just down the 405 freeway at Orange County Intl Raceway and again to Cochran’s front-engine mount.
A few might have still believed that by Cochran holding down the front-engine fort that the rear-engine car’s day had still not arrived, but when “Big Daddy” mowed down the 32-car NHRA Winternationals field with precision, drove back east to win the IHRA Winternationals, then back west to win the fabled March Meet (which included an early-round win over Cochran), well, there wasn’t much for most of the remaining detractors to say except “How soon can I get one?”
As you’ll see next week, the answer was “not long,” but probably still longer than many had hoped.
Ask someone on the street about Kansas, and you’ll probably hear something about wheat fields, The Wizard of Oz, or, for the rockers out there, wayward sons carrying on. Ask any longtime drag racing fan about Kansas, and you’ll probably be hearing about John Wiebe.
The 34th state has produced a lot of fine drag racers, from Top Gas legend Ray Motes to guys like Bob Sullivan (of Pandemonium fame), Billy Graham, Gary Cooper, Norm Gingrass, Dale Wilch, Dick Custy, and Tim Baxter and current-day hitters like Randy Meyer, Gary Stinnett, and Todd and Allan Patterson, but the guy they called “Kansas John” really put the Sunflower State on the drag racing map.
Unless you count James Earp, brother of Wyatt Earp, or politician Jesse Unruh, Wiebe may be the biggest thing to come out of Newton, Kan. -- 25 miles north of Wichita, in the heart of Kansas-- since the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway in 1872. He’s certainly the fastest.
The three-time AHRA Top Fuel world champ, NHRA national event winner, pioneering racer, and slingshot holdout raced professionally for 12 seasons in Top Fuel before his sudden and unexpected retirement in early 1977, but he left behind a legacy rich enough to survive four decades on the sidelines.
Born in 1942, Wiebe was raised on a dairy farm and developed his affinity for speed and power at an early age. At 12, he built a go-kart using the motor from a grain auger, then graduated to chainsaw engines. By the time he left high school, he was hot rodding his street cars.
After college, he leased a service station on I-35 in Newton and spent $1,400 to buy one of the region’s first oscilloscopes, an early diagnostic and tuning tool. His ads read, “See your engine on TV.” Locals thought the device was magical, and before long, racers were calling on his services, and he was gaining valuable knowledge along the way.
Around the same time, Wiebe got his first serious race cars, a ’34 Ford followed by a ’23-T roadster, both of which had supercharged engines. In 1964, AHRA officials deemed his car “too fast” for the class he was running and bumped him up a class. “I was pretty easygoing, but I almost felt violated by this decision,” he remembered. “I went home and decided that I was going to go Top Fuel racing to make sure that wouldn't happen to me again. I’d been around but hadn’t ever thought before about racing Top Fuel and didn’t really know how to run one, but the next day, I called Woody Gilmore and ordered a car.”
He raced locally, in Ark City and Wichita, before journeying to Tulsa, Okla., and legendary Southwest Raceway, then home of the NHRA World Finals and stomping grounds for guys like Bennie “the Wizard” Osborn, Jimmy “the Smiling Okie” Nix, Bob Creitz, and other Midwest terrors. He stunned everyone by running 200 mph to gain entrance into the prestigious Mickey Thompson 200-mph Club.
“Tulsa was the hotbed, and if you did well there, that was really saying something,” he said. “At one race, I beat the Beach Boys in the final and won $2,000. I was in tall cotton, and that was when I decided to race professionally.”
His big AHRA moment came early, at a contentious event at Green Valley Race City in Smithfield, Texas, where Art Malone was the star attraction for a 64-car field. The racers – for reasons Wiebe can’t recall – staged a sit-in strike on the starting line one night, and the next day when AHRA President Jim Tice started looking for the guilty parties, only Wiebe stepped up and admitted his involvement. His punishment was to race Malone in the first round, and he beat Malone.
“That made me an instant hero with the racers,” he remembered, “and after the run, Tice came up to congratulate me and said he liked my honesty and integrity and asked me to run all of his races with the promise of guaranteed money. I had to race somewhere, and getting paid to do it seemed good, and we raced AHRA so we could afford to run NHRA events.”
Although he set the AHRA national record at 7.40 in late 1966 (also at Green Valley), according to The Top Fuel Handbook, he didn’t win his first national event until May 1969, when he won the AHRA Southern Nationals in Memphis, Tenn., which gave a hint that bigger things were coming, and they were.
John Wiebe, far lane, came within a whisker of winning both the NHRA and AHRA world championships in 1970. After winning the AHRA crown, he lost the NHRA title on this final-round holeshot against Ronnie Martin, 6.65 to 6.62.
When AHRA introduced its Grand American Series of Professional Drag Racing in 1970, the timing was perfect for Wiebe. With Don Garlits sidelined by his terrible accident at Lions, Wiebe went on a tear, winning the first of three AHRA Top Fuel championships, and he came within a round of winning NHRA’s world championship that year as well, losing the final round at Dallas Int’l Motor Speedway. He set low e.t. and top speed in the final round at 6.62, 226.70 but lost on a holeshot to Ronnie Martin’s 6.65.
His fellow Top Fuel drivers voted him the winner of the Mike Sorokin award as the year’s most outstanding Top Fuel driver. “Because it came from my peers, that was one of the highlights of my career,” he admitted.
He became friends with the legendary and ever-quotable Ed Donovan (who once told him, “You’ll never go faster hanging around people who go slower.”), and they batted around ideas with one another on a regular basis. Wiebe started the 1971 season strong, including a runner-up to Garlits at the NHRA Springnationals, and even though Donovan was racing with Creitz at that time, he tapped Wiebe to be the first to race his revolutionary new aluminum 417 engine, which was patterned after the racer-friendly 392 instead of the newer 426.
“He and Creitz had a car together at the time, so it was a little bit awkward for me to get the engine, and, to be honest, I don’t really have an answer as to why he chose me; it was kind of like the crazy aunt in the closet – nobody talked about why,” Wiebe said with a laugh. “I think maybe that Ed realized that I was pretty driven and focused and that I was big on attention to detail and open to trying stuff.”
Wiebe, left, and Don Prudhomme, Ed Donovan, Don Garlits, and the Donovan 417 were on the cover of Hot Rod magazine.
While his peers had jumped en masse to the rear-engine design, Wiebe doggedly stuck with the slingshot and even experimented with this wing, which he had built by Doug Kruse for this car that he ran with Ed Donovan. The experiment did not go well or last long as the wing came loose in the lights and struck Wiebe in the head at the Las Vegas divisional event. “It could have been a lot worse; I don’t even know why I put that thing on,” he admitted. (Reyes photo)
Wiebe finally switched to a rear-engine car in 1973 and was rewarded with his first NHRA national event win, defeating AHRA archrival Don Garlits in the final.
The Donovan 417 was 55 pounds lighter than the original 392, and the interchangeable steel sleeves for each cylinder made it a strong and reliable piece, and it also cooled more uniformly than the 392. The engine’s pushrod angles were less severe than those of its counterparts, and the engine required much less ignition lead (30 to 40 degrees compared to 60 to 70 for the 426) and, overall, was more efficient. Wiebe remembers that he didn’t get the block until just before the 1971 Supernationals – Donovan appropriately flipped the starter switch for the first warm-up -- and, after overcoming a series of new-engine glitches, put down the first laps at Irwindale Raceway before heading to Ontario Motor Speedway.
Although he would qualify No. 1 at 6.53 with the engine at its debut at Ontario, Wiebe had to settle for runner-up honors behind Hank Johnson after smoking the tires in the final following a prolonged staging battle that built too much heat – and power -- into the engine.
“People had a lot of misconceptions about the engine,” said Wiebe. “They thought Donovan was building it just to be a lightweight engine, but really he did it for strength because we were splitting the cylinder walls in those old 392s. I don’t remember even a lot of attention being given to the project that year because it was a 392 engine, that is until we set low e.t. in Ontario. I think all of those guys who were running the ‘elephant’  were paralyzed by fear that the engine would keep doing that.”
Some didn’t stay paralyzed for long. Dick Crawford, who worked with Donovan to develop the engine, remembers showing up at the shop Monday after the race to find a line of racers wanting to talk to Donovan.
As successful as the engine was, Wiebe and longtime crewmember "Sonar" Steve Phillips were still running his front-engine slingshot, even though Garlits’ win at the 1971 Winternationals had put the handwriting on the wall that the rear-engine design was the way to go.
“Garlits told me that it took more power to run a rear-engined car (due to their weight), and my front-engine car was running just fine,” he explained. “Maybe he just didn’t want me to run one. Plus, I knew there were some bugs with those cars, and I figured that I could always go that route once they worked out. I was a little stubborn. I said earlier that I wasn’t afraid to try things; try is one thing, change is another.”
(In an early 1972 interview in Drag Racing USA, Wiebe also explained that he felt safer in the front-engine car, protected as such on the sides by the rear tires in the case of a wreck, and because his new 417 didn’t oil, he wasn’t worried about engine fires, one of the real and advertised advantages of the rear-engine car. ”Therefore, I will run this combination for the rest of the year until there’s a better way to improve,” he said.)
Wiebe stuck with the front-engine design through the 1972 season and went winless. Garlits, who had won the 1971 AHRA crown, won it again in 1972, and Wiebe finally relented and had Ed Mabry build him a rear-engine car for the 1973 campaign.
Success came quickly. He won the 1973 AHRA Grand Am at Green Valley and not long after scored his first NHRA national event win, at the Springnationals in Columbus, where he beat none other than Garlits in the final. Wiebe was leading the AHRA points over Garlits. Things looked as if they were back on the upswing for “Kansas John.”
Then came Tulsa.
Garlits’ PRA National Challenge, which was scheduled by AHRA in Tulsa in August, the week before the U.S. Nationals (the original event, in 1972, was scheduled on top of Indy), offered a big payday, and Wiebe was eager to get some of it. He qualified No. 1 with a 6.11 and drew young Jeb Allen in a fateful first-round matchup.
“After we ran low e.t., we pulled the heads, and No. 7 looked like it hadn’t hardly even fired. I would run three different compression ratios in my motor -- the pistons are like little soldiers, but one of them doesn’t know what the other one is doing; if 7 and 8 don’t want to do their job and burn, you make them do it -- so I just put a higher compression piston in that hole and tightened the nozzle down.
Don Gillespie photos
John Wiebe, near lane, collided with Jeb Allen in round one of the 1973 National Challenge in Tulsa, Okla.
“I was so pumped up for the first round that I even put a little more clutch into it. It left and started shaking. I drove through it, but the back end was hopping and then started coming around; I lifted, but with that spool [rear end], it just drove me right into his lane and into the side of his car, and we started rolling.
“It seemed like it lasted 20 minutes,” Wiebe remembered. “I always remember Pat Foster saying, ‘Tip the can and sit low,’ so I got down in there as low as I could, which pushed my legs up higher.”
The two collided about 200 feet downtrack and began a horrific and fiery tumble. Wiebe’s car ended up on top of the guardrail back in his lane, but because the guardrail support posts stuck out above the top of the guardrail, as he slid down the top of the rail, he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg. Garlits won the race, and at that point, it seemed that Wiebe’s bid for a second AHRA championship had come to an end.
OK, stay with me because this is where it gets sticky.
Surprisingly, West Coast heroes James Warren and Roger Coburn stepped in, at Wiebe’s request, to help. At the time, AHRA rules dictated that the points stayed with the car and not the driver, so Warren and Coburn could fly Wiebe’s colors and earn points for him. It’s such a bizarre scenario that you understand why the rules soon changed.
A financial agreement was quickly struck, and Warren and Coburn wrapped their Rain for Rent dragster with Wiebe’s name and, with AHRA’s blessing, showed up at the next AHRA event, the Grand Am at Orange County Int’l Raceway. Reportedly, Garlits was unaware of this development, and thinking that Wiebe’s championship bid was over, chose to enter his experimental “shorty” dragster (180-inch wheelbase). He got beat in round one (as did Butch Maas driving Garlits’ Wynn’s Liner), and Warren won the race, which should have given Wiebe back the points lead, right? But …
With Wiebe out of action with a broken leg, the California duo of James Warren and Roger Coburn carried Wiebe's colors into the final two races of the 1973 AHRA season (as was allowed then by the rules) and lost a winner-take-all final round to Garlits at the final event in Fremont. (Reyes photo)
According to Drag Racing USA, Garlits lodged a protest with AHRA and, incredibly, won the appeal because, according to AHRA, "Garlits was not given fair notice of the Warren entry.” The article was not clear about whether Warren/Wiebe was stripped of points or somehow Garlits was given points, and no article I can find explains who had the lead heading into the season finale, the AHRA World Finals at Northern California’s Fremont Raceway.
I contacted Garlits for his memories on this subject. His recollection is that Wiebe had the points lead going into Fremont. “There was no appeal,” he insisted. “I did raise hell, but Tice insisted that Warren run in Wiebe’s place, and I beat them anyway. Don ‘Mad Dog’ Cook made up a rhyme: ‘All of Tice’s horses, and all of Tice’s men, couldn’t beat "Big Daddy," now or then.’ Tice saw Wiebe as the next Don Garlits and was moving me into the spot as president of the AHRA, then he died, and the wife thought differently about me running the association. Tice liked me just fine but was figuring on Wiebe to replace me when I took over the presidency. I wasn't ready for that just yet.”
Regardless of who had the lead, it all got settled in Fremont. As Wiebe remained hospitalized and in a full-leg cast in Kansas, Garlits qualified No. 1 with a 5.97, and, after a week’s rain delay, Warren matched that e.t. in winning his first-round race. As if following a script written in Hollywood, Garlits and Warren both reached the final round with the title in the balance. They launched evenly, but “Big Daddy,” as he has done time and again, saved the best for last and ran low e.t., 5.95, to easily outdistance Warren’s troubled 6.35 for the championship, his third straight.
Come Winternationals time, Wiebe was healed and ready. He ran well but never got further than the semifinals (at the Springnationals) and ended the year not qualifying for the tough World Finals field yet still finished a respectable fourth (behind Gary Beck, Dave Settles, and Herm Petersen) in NHRA’s first points-based championship year. He also slayed his National Challenge demons by dominating the 1974 version, which had been moved east to New York National Speedway.
Wiebe won the AHRA Top Fuel title in 1975 and 1976, then retired in early 1977.
Wiebe finished just 10th in the NHRA standings in 1975 but won his second AHRA championship and repeated the title in 1976, his final full season. He finished seventh in NHRA points in 1976 and just missed winning the U.S. Nationals when he received a red-light in the final round against Richard Tharp on a weekend when there was speculation that erroneous red-lights were being triggered by “shineback” from the sun on polished front wheels. In addition to the Top Fuel final, the Pro Stock and Pro Comp final rounds were decided by red-lights.
In light of those successes, when Wiebe, still in his mid-30s, announced in early 1977 that he was retiring, it was a real bombshell. He ran only the early part of the season, with his last race being the East-West event at OCIR. Looking back, he says there were a number of factors, including a young family that he never got to see enough, the end of his relationship with Donovan (he began the year with a late-model KB instead), and some frustrating things that happened at OCIR and the week before that pointed him to his decision, which was immediate and irrevocable.
“I wasn’t angry; it just felt like some of the fun was gone,” he said. “I made my mind up. My wife asked if I should finish the season out because of my bookings and sponsors, and I told her no, that I was done, and that was it. I never looked back.
“I didn’t miss the traveling. One Monday I was on the Garden Grove Freeway [in Southern California], and Wednesday night I was on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey. I stopped in Newton to pick up an engine and some clothes. Or how you drive all night, and when the sun hits the windshield in the morning, you’re toast, and you still have another 1,200 miles to go.
“Or when your pistons were sent to Boston instead of Long Island or you went to a machine shop on the road and told them how you wanted something machined, and they’d do it by the book instead of how you told them. As time goes on, you forget all of that, but you remember people like Ed Donovan and James Warren; the friendships, they’re forever.
"I liked being with the fans, the young kids; I’m a people person. Someone once told me, ‘Drag racing stars are people not cars,’ and that always stuck with me. That was an era that I was fortunate to be in. There could not have been a better 12 years for me to race.”
After leaving the cockpit, Wiebe got involved with Wichita Int’l Raceway for about a year and a half trying to resurrect what was a rundown operation, but the promoting business left a bad taste in his mouth, and he quit.
(Above) Fittingly in light of their years of battles, Wiebe, left, and Garlits were inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame the same year, in 1994. They reconnected a few years ago in Reading. (Below) Wiebe has long enjoyed the challenges of hunting and is a proficient bowman.
In 1994, Wiebe was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame along with Garlits, NHRA founder Wally Parks, publishing magnate Robert Petersen, Sox & Martin, and Chevrolet legend Zora Arkus-Duntov.
“I didn’t deserve to be in with those guys,” he said humbly. “That was a great year for the Hall. To be there with Mr. Duntov was amazing. I had a ‘56 Chevy as a kid, and we used to say his name reverently. I was more overwhelmed then than I ever was at any race. He’s your hero, your icon, and you’re being inducted with him.”
Life after racing includes Wiebe’s other passion: hunting. He has hunted and fished since he was a kid, and he has found his greatest challenge in bow hunting deer.
“With a gun, you can be a quarter-mile away; there’s no challenge in that; with a bow, my self-imposed limit is about 20 yards,” he said. “It’s a real challenge. It’s like these deer have college educations.”
Like drag racing, the challenge is in the details, the technology, and the experimentation. Wiebe utilizes infrared and motion-detector trail cameras, scents, calls, rattles, observes patterns and eating habits, and experiments with different combinations of arrow shafts and arrowheads.
“I still like to chase perfection,” he said, “even if that means getting out there three hours before the sun comes up and waiting all day for a shot. If you can spend some time alone where it’s pretty and be at peace with yourself and your creator, you’re a pretty fortunate guy.”
Talented in racing, fortunate in life, “Kansas John” Wiebe had it all.
Fifty years ago this weekend, Don Prudhomme drove Roland Leong's Hawaiian Top Fueler to victory at the 1965 Winternationals, his first of 49 career wins.
I had planned to publish today my column about the life and times of John Wiebe, but after a heads-up from Skip Allum in Don Prudhomme’s camp, I realized that the timing was just too good not to make a last-minute decision to postpone it a week.
You see, tomorrow, Feb. 7, Saturday of the 2015 Circle K NHRA Winternationals, will mark the 50th anniversary of “the Snake’s” breakthrough first career win at the 1965 Winternationals. It’s too good a coincidence to pass up.
Yes, race fans, it has been a half-century since Prudhomme vaulted into the national spotlight in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian; they went on to also win that year’s Nationals in Indianapolis, helping to launch two of the greatest careers in NHRA Drag Racing.
Make no mistake, Prudhomme, just two months shy of his 24th birthday, already was a well-known driver in drag racing circles, having driven the fabled Greer-Black-Prudhomme dragster to unprecedented match race success in 1963 and 1964, and Leong, just 20 years old, had already made a bit of a name for himself as the owner of the dragster that Danny Ongais had driven to Top Gas honors at the 1964 Winternationals, but it took the 1965 Winternationals, televised on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, to make them national heroes.
I’ve recounted here previously the histrionics of the event [The One-Day Wonder], at which rain and heavy fog Friday and Saturday forced the entire event to be completed Sunday, and the story of how Prudhomme and Leong first joined forces [The Hawaiian's Winters Wonderland], so I won’t rehash those details but concentrate instead on the victory and what happened (and could have happened) after the big win.
Despite the inclement weather, Prudhomme and Don Garlits were among the few who got in any runs before Sunday, with ”Big Daddy” blasting his Wynn's Jammer to a speed of 206.88, the fastest in history, Friday with an e.t. of 7.81. Prudhomme, meanwhile, hustled the Hawaiian to a 7.80 at 204 mph. By the time that the field – the first 16-car field ever – was set at noon Sunday, Art Malone – who later that year would compete in the Indy 500 -- was No. 1 at 7.56 , Prudhomme no.2 and Garlits No. 3.
Tom McEwen, who had qualified No. 7, fouled out in round one to No. 9 Bill Alexander, and Prudhomme got a single when Willie Redford was unable to fire the Carroll Bros. & Oxman entry. It probably didn’t matter because Leong and Keith Black had put the screws to the Hawaiian, which ran 7.87 with Prudhomme lifting to a speed of just 173.74 mph. Garlits and Kalitta also advanced to round two.
Prudhomme followed with an even quicker 7.77 at just 175,78 to overcome a holeshot by James Warren, who was at the wheel of the Chrysler-powered Warren & Crowe car after his other ride, the Chevy-powered Warren & Coburn fueler, had missed the show.
Kalitta also moved another rung up the ladder in a great match with Malone while Alexander caught another huge break when Garlits red-lighted away a 7.86. Another favorite, No. 5 qualifier Ongais, at the wheel of the Broussard-Davis-Ongais Mangler, lost to future NHRA Chief Starter Rick Stewart, but it was determined there had been a starting-line malfunction, and probably because of the one-day nature of the race and the shortness of time, instead of ordering a rerun, officials advanced both to the semifinals to race one another again. Weird, right?
Anyway, Ongais then threw away a wild 7.78 on a red-light to Stewart in the unusual three-pair semifinals, and Kalitta red-lighted to Alexander, giving Alexander his third straight free pass. Prudhomme had the odd-lot bye and eased to a 9.63.
Alexander then had the bye in the newly created fourth round, and Prudhomme joined him in the final when he beat Stewart with another 7.75 at 204.08 mph.
Historic photos of the final round like the one above show Alexander jumping out to a big lead with his Jim Brissette-tuned entry (or, as the National Dragster photo caption read, “Alexander’s foot expressed itself first”), but Prudhomme flagged him down on the big end with another stout pass of 7.76 to collect the victory and the '65 Ford F-250 truck (equipped with a camper) awarded to the Top Fuel and Top Gas winners. Leong was not even old enough to legally buy himself a celebratory beer.
Even though he won the race, Prudhomme admittedly has been “aggravated” at himself for nearly 50 years for giving up that final-round holeshot, but, as you will see – in one of those great “stories behind the stories” that I love so much – he finally feels vindicated.
Do you see what I see? Keep in mind, this is cellphone footage of a TV, but it's good enough to catch an eye-opening occurrence. (Hit Play button to start)
As I mentioned earlier, the event was broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but you can’t find a video of that anywhere online. Enter Jana DeHart, who as president of Up For It Inc. produces, directs, and writes for numerous outlets, including Fox Sports, Speed, and Velocity networks, the last two on Barrett-Jackson coverage. She became friends with “the Snake” through his Barrett-Jackson auctions of some of his great old cars, including the Hot Wheels haulers.
She also has been documenting Prudhomme’s resurrection of the Shelby Super Snake dragster and had purchased one of those mash-up video compilations sold online hoping for some footage from 1967. She didn’t find that, but she was thrilled to discover a good 10 minutes or so from the 1965 WWOS Winternationals show, including the final round. Realizing the upcoming 50th anniversary, she made a video of the final-round portion, shooting her TV screen with her iPhone, and texted it to Prudhomme. It only took one view for Prudhomme to suddenly feel better about that holeshot. See if you can spot what he did.
Yes, race fans, from the camera behind the car, you can clearly see Prudhomme’s side of the countdown Tree skip the final amber bulb (burned out, I surmise) before the green while Alexander’s side of Tree functions normally.
“I kicked myself in the ass for 50 years because I was late, then as I’m watching this video – which I’d never seen before – I see this, and it’s just amazing,” Prudhomme told me. “You can see now why it startled me.” (Prudhomme then shared the video with Leong, who still chided his former driver, telling him he was lucky he had a good car underneath him that weekend.)
So, 50 years later, what do Prudhomme and Leong remember about the event? As could be expected, details and e.t.s of the actual runs have long since faded (other than the final round), but the general sentiment about what it meant to both still resonates.
The Chinese Year of the Snake had started just five days earlier, and that rang true throughout the rest of 1965. They had hung around California after the Winternationals win and whipped the fields up and down the coast, so they decided to go on tour. Chassis builder Rod Peppmuller built them a frame for a new long-haul trailer, and a neighbor of Prudhomme’s helped them build the body for the enclosed trailer they would need for a cross-country trip through the elements and to protect their car and parts from thieves. Prudhomme and Leong headed east and experienced unprecedented success throughout the year, capped by that big Indy win, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Leong and Prudhomme, at the 1965 Winternationals. Buddies then, buddies now.
"The Snake" gives Leong a friendly "Hawaiian punch" in Pueblo, Colo., 1977.
Together at last year's U.S. Nationals. Buddies then, buddies now.
Still, I wonder how (of if) both of their lives might have been different had they a) not joined forces and/or b) not won the Winternationals. They’ve both told me that winning the Winternationals sent their booking requests through the roof, and because those were the lifeblood of teams back then, what might have happened had they “only” been Winternationals runner-ups?
“You couldn’t make a living running national events,” Prudhomme confirmed, “but the publicity you got by winning one helped you get those match race dates. It’s like cutting a hit song so you can go out and make money doing concerts. We ran match races to be able to run the national events.”
“If we hadn’t gone on tour, we could have just ended up being a couple of Southern California guys who happened to win the Winternationals,” said Leong.
And what if on that fateful Saturday evening at Lions in October 1964, Leong had proved to be a natural Top Fuel driver instead of crashing his new car on one of his first passes? Would Prudhomme, who was without a ride after Tommy Greer decided to stop funding the G-B-P entry in late 1964, have found a ride with someone else for 1965, and how successful would he have been? Would engine master Black have worked with his young protégé Prudhomme and his possible new ride or would he have stuck with the well-heeled and in-need-of-help Leong and whomever he chose as a driver instead?
“I’ve told Prudhomme he’s lucky I wasn’t worth a [damn] as a Top Fuel driver,” joked Leong, who actually had been successful as a driver of his gas dragsters in Hawaii, where he once set the state record. “He’s lucky I was all guts and no brains.”
Leong admits that he knew nothing about nitro or Hemi engines when he decided to go fuel racing but was smart enough to figure out that Black did and hired him to help, then pretty much had Kent Fuller duplicate the G-B-P chassis. And, as we all know, it was Black who told Leong he shouldn’t drive and nominated Prudhomme to drive the Hawaiian once Fuller had repaired it after Leong’s off-track excursion. But would Black have stayed with Leong if Prudhomme were not involved?
Leong thinks not, and if that's true, I’d venture that it’s extremely unlikely the Hawaiian would have won the Winternationals, and it would delayed (at minimum) Leong’s rise to glory. Leong will certainly tell you there’s no doubt of the influence that “Black Magic” had on him throughout his career; his operation was based out of Black’s shop until he died in 1991 – interestingly, but maybe not coincidentally, Leong’s last full year as a car owner.
(Leong remembers the notoriously competitive Prudhomme once telling the steady yet conservative Black, “I’d rather blow the [expletive] engine out of the chassis than lose a race,” and Black responding, “Well buddy, you’re driving for the wrong person.”)
I asked Prudhomme what he might have done had he not driven for Leong.
“Geez, I’d have probably gone back to painting cars,” he mused, and when I asked if he thought he could have gotten another ride to start 1965, he replied honestly, “I like to think so. At that time, there were so many Top Fuel cars out there, it’s quite possible. I think I had a pretty good rep as I driver because I also drove Ed Pink’s car when I wasn’t driving the Greer car. But hooking up with Roland and winning the Winternationals was amazing; it was everything because it launched both of our careers. I was fortunate to get a ride in a first-class piece of equipment, and both of us took advantage of it.”
I wondered if Leong ever regretted not being his own driver and if the Hawaiian would have done better with him in dual roles, as Prudhomme did, or with, as it happened, him as the owner/tuner and marketing guy. He admits we’ll never know but thinks he could have held his own, but he has no regrets about the way it all turned out and can even laugh about it.
“C.J. Hart was the manager at Riverside [Raceway] when I got my gas dragster license, and he was also the manager at Lions when I crashed and took my license away,” he remembered with a laugh. “After his wife died, he went on tour with the NHRA Safety Safari, and I ran into him one night at dinner and thanked him for taking away my license and saving my life because I probably would have crashed it again. I’m happy with the way it all turned out.”
Leong, who is in Arizona this Winternationals weekend tuning Tim Boychuk’s Nostalgia Funny Car, also was a little reflective. “When we left Keith Black’s shop that summer in 1965 to go on tour, I never imagined we’d end up doing this our whole lives. I had just turned 21, and here I am at 70 still tuning race cars.”
“It’s cool to have been part of it,” agreed Prudhomme. “Hopefully we influenced some people along the way."
And although they parted company at the end of 1965 – Leong went on to win the 1966 Winternationals with Mike Snively in the Hawaiian while Prudhomme went out on his own with the B&M Torkmaster – Leong says he totally understood Prudhomme's decision to leave to try to make a name on his own. There were never any real hard feelings between them in what has been nearly a lifelong friendship despite that Prudhomme fired Leong (“Three times!” Leong says) during stints as crew chief on Prudhomme’s Funny Cars in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Leong remembers how, when he fell on tough times in the summer of 1973, when his entire Funny Car operation was stolen from a hotel parking lot in Gary, Ind., his pal Prudhomme opened his shop doors and let Leong – who had purchased Ray Alley’s similarly chassised Engine Masters Charger as a replacement – take whatever engine pieces he needed to get back up and running. “He never charged me a dime,” says Leong.
(Not that it was always rosy; Leong remembers calling track operators trying to book his Hawaiian prior to the 1966 season only to find out, much to his chagrin, that Prudhomme had already called them all and gotten himself booked on the strength of their 1965 season. It only took Leong and Snively also winning the Winternationals to fix that.)
They remain the best of friends. Leong is almost always present whenever “Snake” throws a get-together, and they talk on the phone pretty much every day. Just a few weeks ago, I got a call from “Snake” while he and Leong were hanging out at the “rich guy” sports car races at Laguna Seca in Northern California. For a couple of guys who were raised an ocean and a culture apart but grew up together in the sport, they’re an interesting pair.
“I can’t explain why we stayed good friends this long,” said Leong. “We just clicked right from the start and stayed friends through it all and still have fun together doing a bunch of stuff. I’m overjoyed that it’s worked out like it has for us.”