1970: A 'Super' season for Funny CarFriday, March 04, 2016

The Funny Car class got its first taste of full integration into the NHRA season in 1970, NHRA’s vaunted “Super Season.” NHRA had nearly doubled its schedule, going from four races to seven – adding the Gatornationals in Gainesville, the Summernationals in York, Pa., and the Supernationals in Ontario, Calif. – and introduced the new Pro Stock class. Super, indeed.

Funny Car ran at all seven races, and even though five different race winners – Larry Reyes, Leonard Hughes, Leroy Goldstein, Don Schumacher, and Gene Snow – were crowned, and even if NHRA still hadn’t been using its tried and true “World Finals winner is the world champion” formula, Snow probably still would have been the champ. Sure, “the Snowman” won the World Finals, but he also won the Summernationals and was runner-up at the Winternationals and Springnationals and posted a statement victory at the postseason Supernationals; only Goldstein and Reyes also made more than one final-round appearance that year – each with a win and runner-up.

(Above) Gene Snow won Indy back to back in 1966 and 1967 with his Rambunctious Dart, running in the C/Fuel Dragster class. (Below) Snow began experimenting with direct drive in 1968 and piloted this Charger to the class' first 200-mph pass.

Snow was certainly no stranger to winning in a Funny Car, having driven his pre-Funny Car Rambunctious Dodge Dart “funny car,” built by fellow Texan Don Hardy, to back-to-back national event victories in the C/Fuel Dragster class in Indy in 1966 and 1967, in Comp and Super eliminator, respectively. He also won the Comp title at the 1968 Winternationals with the wild-looking piece, albeit on gasoline in the B/A class. He had a lot of experience with the wild machinery and put it to good use in 1970.

The secret to Snow’s success – which also extended to the AHRA trail, where he also won the season championship and was named Driver of the Year – may well have been the direct-drive setup in his sleek mini Charger. As horsepower began to increase in the class, the standard-use automatic transmissions soon became a weak point, so Snow had begun to experiment with removing the transmission in late 1968 and into 1969. He worked with Crower to come up with a four-disc Crowerglide centrifugal clutch that allowed him to keep the hammer down all the way to the finish line, and his top-end speed soared into the mid-190s.

"Though it was sluggish off the line, it would mow down the automatic cars, which always nosed over at about 185 mph," he told NHRA National Dragster.

Early in 1969, at Don and Carl Gay's track in Dickinson, Texas, not far from today’s Royal Purple Raceway, Snow broke the 200-mph barrier with a pass of 200.88 mph and never looked back. He ran 205.46 mph at Orange County Int'l Raceway and later broke the 210-mph barrier with a 213.78 clocking in September. "I didn't think it was such a big deal at the time, but we kept running more than 200 mph at just about every race after that," he said.

Match race times being considered somewhat unofficial, it took about a year for the first official 200-mph Funny Car pass at an NHRA national event, and, serendipitously, it was Snow who did it, May 3, 1970, with a 208.71 run at Dallas Int'l Motor Speedway during the Springnationals.

Snow’s march to NHRA’s first Funny Car championship began with a runner-up at the 1970 Winternationals behind Reyes, as reflected in last week’s column about the Hawaiian team’s Pomona successes. Snow used a massive holeshot and a 202-mph trap speed to beat Lew Arrington in round one, 7.68 to 7.61, then took a strong 7.40 second-round win when Danny Ongais lost traction in Mickey Thompson’s Mustang. Snow topped 200 again in the semifinals, where his low e.t. of the meet 7.30 outran Kenny Safford’s 7.47 in the Mr. Norm Charger. Reyes, by contrast, was mired in the mid-7.50s at 195 to 196 mph in defeating Rich Siroonian, Kelly Chadwick, and Hughes, the latter two via red-lights, but Snow slipped to a 7.83 in the final and lost to Reyes’ 7.67.

(Above) From left, Paul Candies, Leonard Hughes, Roland Leong, and Larry Reyes all played major parts in the first two races of the 1970 season. (Below) The Gatornationals Funny Car final -- the first "all-team" final in the class' history -- was won by Hughes, far lane, over Reyes.

Although the Winternationals had featured a 16-car field, the Funny Car field for the next event on the calendar, the inaugural Gatornationals in Florida just two weeks later, was limited to just eight cars. Maybe NHRA knew something because fewer than 16 entries showed up, and Snow was not among them.

Appropriately for NHRA’s “Super Season,” the field was led by Larry Arnold in the Super Cuda (7.17) and Bobby Rowe in the Super Duster (7.18), followed by Reyes in the Roland Leong-tuned No. 2 Candies & Hughes 'Cuda and a field that also included Hughes, former Super Cuda/Super Ford driver “Super Sidney” Foster in his new King Cobra SOHC Mustang, Bobby Wood and his Rebel Country Chevy II, Phil Castronovo and the Custom Body Enterprises Charger, and Huston Platt in Tommy Smith’s Super Swinger Dart on the bump at 7.33. Chadwick, Connie Kalitta, Ronnie Hunter, Della Woods, and Mel Perry, who lost the roof of the Super Hugger Camaro in a blower explosion during qualifying, were among the alternates.

As history (and last week’s column) tells us, the final boiled down to a battle of temporary teammates, Hughes and Reyes – the first all-team Funny Car final in NHRA national event history -- with Hughes taking the predetermined win. Reyes waited until his light was good and green and Hughes was long gone downtrack before launching, as you can observe in the seldom-seen photo above right. As it was, Reyes still had to lift early, slowing to just 191 mph, to avoid catching Hughes.

On a historically interesting note, on June 1, it became mandatory for all Funny Cars to be equipped with a Freon-based onboard-fire-extinguisher system. Many teams had already been using the systems, but they became a must-have prior to the next event on the calendar, the NHRA Springnationals at Dallas Int’l Motor Speedway.

Leroy Goldstein and the Ramchargers: first into the sixes

Four months after the Gatornationals, Snow was back in action in his native Texas as the Funny Car class closed in on the six-second zone. Safford led the 16-car field in the Gary Dyer-tuned Mr. Norm’s Charger with a sizzling 7.04, the quickest official pass in class history, supplanting the 7.10 that Reyes had run in Gainesville. Goldstein, who had moved over from the Ramchargers Top Fueler to its new Challenger Funny Car at the start of the season, was No. 2 with a 7.10 and Snow a distant third at 7.22. Behind them were Hughes, Schumacher and his Barracuda, Rowe, Jake Johnston in the Blue Max Mustang, Tom McEwen in the Hot Wheels Duster, Ray Alley in his new Engine Masters Duster, Bernie Williams in Vance Hunt’s Hemi Hoss Mustang, Texas favorite Don Gay, John Dekker, Don Prudhomme’s Hot Wheels ‘Cuda, Dave Beebe and the Dodge Fever Challenger, Mike Snively in “Diamond Jim” Annin’s Challenger, and, on the bump spot, some guy named Kenny Bernstein in Alley’s Cougar. (All of the cars in the field were powered by either early- or late-model Chryslers, including the Mustangs of Johnston and Williams, Gay’s Pontiac, and Bernstein’s Mercury.)

After Safford’s mighty mount bowed out to handling problems against Alley in round one, Goldstein and Snow became the favorites and reached the final round on the strength of respective 7.07 and 7.09 semifinal elapsed times against Hughes and Prudhomme, and many thought that a six-second run might well be in the offing in the final. Goldstein came close, clocking a 7.03 – the quickest time ever in national competition – at 208 mph after Snow had to shut off after losing traction.

Just 16 days later, June 30, on a Tuesday evening at New York National Speedway, Goldstein and the Ramchargers got that first six with a 6.95 blast and proved it was no fluke a few weeks later with a 6.99 on their home turf at Detroit Dragway. (The history-making car was lost to fire not long after, but its follow-up proved equally adept with a 6.92 blast, the first NHRA national event six, in Indy a few months later.)

The inaugural Summernationals, July 17-19, was held at York U.S. 30 Dragway in York, Pa. – the event would move to its longtime home in Englishtown the following year – and Snow finally reached the NHRA winner’s circle. Snow paced the field (scheduled for 16 cars, but only nine showed up) by a whopping two-tenths, his 7.23 far ahead of No. 2 Tom Sneden’s 7.43 in the Bob Banning Dodge entry. Vic Brown, in Gary Richards’ Chrysler-powered Black Shadow Mustang, was third, followed by Castronovo, local hero Bruce Larson and his USA-1 Camaro (winner of the track’s famed Super Stock Nationals the previous year), Arnold and the Super Cuda, Bob Lani in the Swensen & Lani Barracuda, Jim Maybeck’s new screaming Eagle Camaro, and Ken Poffenberger and his homebuilt Poff’s Super Puffer Corvair. After the all-Chrysler-powered Springnationals, it was good to see three Chevy-motivated entries (those of Larson, Maybeck, and Poffenberger) at York.

After a first-round 7.34 bye for the odd-numbered field, Snow beat Larson with a 7.32, then ripped their throats out with a 7.20 at a booming 214 mph to defeat Castronovo. Brown had worked his way past Lani and a red-lighting Arnold to get the semifinal bye, but his 7.39 best paled alongside Snow’s semifinal ripper. The final round went as expected, with Snow powering to a 7.27 at 210 mph to outdistance Brown’s 7.47.

Schumacher, already a terror on the AHRA trail, scored his first NHRA national event win on the sport’s biggest stage, the U.S. Nationals, but it was a hard-fought battle. Just a little more than two months after Goldstein had recorded the sport’s first six-second Funny Car pass, five drivers qualified in the sixes in Indy, led by Hughes’ stunning 6.80 at 214.79 (low e.t. and top speed) in the C&H 'Cuda, which was now sporting one of the new B&M Clutchflite transmissions (an automatic transmission mated to a clutch). He was joined in the sub-seven-second club by Goldstein (6.88, after the aforementioned 6.92 first “official” six-second NHRA pass), Arnie Behling in John Mazmanian’s Barracuda (6.89), Snow (6.94), and Jay Howell in Prudhomme’s Hot Wheels 'Cuda (6.99, right after doing a fire burnout, no less!).

Schumacher, who had run his first six (a 6.93) just a week or so earlier at Orange County Int’l Raceway, was No. 9 at 7.07, setting him up for a gut-check first-round race with Hughes.

Schumacher responded like a champion, slapping a holeshot on the Louisiana leviathan and lighting the win lamp, 7.17 to 7.10. Schumacher stepped up to runs of 7.07 and 7.01 to trailer Howell and future Schumacher team driver Rowe but figured to be in deep in the final against Goldstein, who had set low e.t. of eliminations in round two at 6.83 against Pat Foster, the new driver of Leong’s Hawaiian, and who had run 6.85 in round one.

Schumacher improved again in the final, running 7.00, and his consistency won the day as Goldstein’s Ramchargers mount lost traction, and even a brilliant pedal job and a 7.14 couldn’t catch “the Shoe.”

(Worth noting is that Funny Car low e.t. of the 1969 Nationals was 7.22, meaning an improvement of more than four-tenths in one season; by comparison, low e.t. in Top Fuel was 6.43 by Prudhomme and the Wynn’s Winder slingshot, the same e.t. as set by the late John Mulligan the previous year. No wonder the funnies were dropping jaws everywhere. Although six-second runs were now all the rage at national events, back then, you could not set a national record at a national event, so the Funny Car record did not dip into the sixes until a few weeks after Indy, when Beebe ran 6.99 at the year’s final Division 7 event at Orange County Int’l Raceway.)

Snow suffered his only first-round loss of his championship season in Indy, falling to Wood’s unexpected 7.07 in what was clearly the upset of the event – not that it really mattered. Even though the World Finals (also held at DIMS) was a winner-take-all deal, division champions earned automatic qualifying berths, and Snow was locked in as the Division 4 champ, having finished well ahead of his former crewmember/future team driver, Johnston. Snow had won just once on the divisional trail, at Oklahoma City Raceway, and Johnston had won at Amarillo Dragway, but even though Snow only reached the one final – Johnston had also been runner-up at Southland Dragway in Houma, La. -- Snow was a consistent late-round finisher everywhere he went and won the divisional title handily.

In addition to automatically seeded division champs, the first five drivers in each class in each division who had earned 500 points during the season were invited to attend the event, but they had to qualify based on e.t.

For some reason, NHRA chose to remove the then-standard 1 percent national record backup rule for the World Finals, and the division champs, with their spots in the field already assured, all took aim at Beebe’s 6.99 record. Snow, who had run an astounding 217 mph at OCIR’s Eastern Funny Car Championships event just weeks before, came closest, running 7.00, which earned him the No. 1 qualifying spot. (It’s also worth noting that during Sunday morning’s allotted time trial, prior to the traditional pre-race parade of qualifiers, Division 7 champ Snively ran 6.97, but it did not count toward qualifying.)

Johnston was right behind Snow in qualifying with a 7.02, and then there was a huge gap to Division 5 champ John Dekker (7.254) and his former partner, Art Ward (7.256); Ward was the champion of the “Travelers” division for drivers whose geographical location favored running in multiple divisions. In the No. 5 spot at 7.26 was Ed McCulloch and partner Art Whipple, with their brand-new Barracuda, a quick replacement after losing their previous car in a towing accident a few weeks earlier.

Snow worked his way past red-lighting Gay with an early-shutoff 7.14 in round one but slipped to a 7.21 in beating Platt in round two, signs that his engine was not happy.

Although Johnston had already exited courtesy of a broken transmission in round one against Brown, two new threats emerged on Snow’s horizon. Snively had impressed with a 7.01 in round one, but it was McCulloch who dropped jaws with a stunning blast of 6.86 at 214.79 mph in round two against Brown. What had been expected to be a cakewalk for Snow had suddenly become anything but.

Snow was fortunate to win the World Finals, overcoming breakage and an extremely tough Ed McCulloch in the final to win the world championship.

Snow’s engine finally gave up the ghost in the semifinals against Snively, death smoke from two burned pistons clouding the finish line after a 7.51, 145-mph effort, but Snively had already given the race away on a red-light start that invalidated his 7.02. McCulloch joined Snow in the final with a strong 6.94.

For a while, it looked as if McCulloch might get a bye run to what would have been his first win (and the championship that sadly eluded him the rest of his Hall of Fame career). The Pro Stockers of Ronnie Sox and “Akron Arlen” Vanke had already completed their final-round burnouts before Snow’s car finally pulled into the staging lanes. At the green, Snow got the drop on “the Ace” and raced to a fine but beatable 7.03, his best pass of the day. McCulloch’s mount refused to make the 1-2 shift, but “the Ace” bravely kept his foot to the floor and made a sensational 7.18 pass in low gear, winding the engine to dangerous extremes. Who knows what it would have run if he had been able to grab high gear.

Brand-new Ontario Motor Speedway hosted the inaugural Supernationals, where Snow again was triumphant. Snow, far lane, beat Jim Dunn's new Barracuda in the semifinals with a 6.97 after earlier setting low e.t. with a 6.95.

Even though the championship was locked up in Dallas, Snow added a victory at the non-points, postseason inaugural Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway for good measure. Snow qualified No. 4 with a 7.08, behind Prudhomme (7.044), Dunn (7.045), and Foster (7.05); the new Ontario surface had not quite come into its own yet, and top drivers like Goldstein, Jim Liberman, McEwen, and many others failed to qualify.

Snow beat Dekker, red-lighting Hughes, and Dunn before squaring off in the final with Arnold. Both drivers had damaged their engines in the semifinals – Snow had burned three pistons and both cylinder heads, and Arnold’s Kingfish had spun three bearings and hurt the transmission -- and neither was ready when the call was made for their final, so the Top Fuel final between Rick Ramsey and Gerry Glenn was pushed ahead of them on the schedule. When Snow and Arnold were finally ready, neither engine sounded particularly healthy, but Snow chugged it out for the win, 7.49 to Arnold’s blower-belt-tossing 8.68, to end his great season on a winning, if not altogether glorious, note.

“Drag racing completes best season in history,” trumpeted the headline in National Dragster as the fabled “Super Season” came to its conclusion. As far as the Funny Car class in general – and Snow in particular – were concerned, it was an amazing success, and there was no doubt that the “plastic fantastics” were here to stay.

The Hawaiian, 1969-71Friday, February 26, 2016

National Dragster's Lane Evans captured this unforgettable image of the flying Hawaiian. There are no subsequent shots from him because it was the last exposure on his roll of film (but we have more angles below).

Last week’s recounting of Clare Sanders’ Funny Car victory at the 1969 Winternationals included, of course, mention of the event’s most spectacular moment, the Hawaiian Charger and driver Larry Reyes taking off kite-like at the finish line in round one, and I got a lot of requests for more information about what was truly an iconic Winternationals moment, captured by National Dragster Managing Editor Lane Evans at the height of its flight.

I’ve written about the incident in this column in a piece about Reyes’ career, but it has been a number of years since then; newer readers might not have seen it, and older readers might not remember it, and it’s certainly well worth revisiting as we look back at the history of the Funny Car. Although, as we have learned, Funny Cars had been around for several years before the 1969 season, that year may have signaled a changing of the guard as fuel dragster stalwarts such as Leong jumped ship to the still-fledgling class.

I’m blessed to count Leong as one of my good friends among the old guard. He has always been very friendly, welcoming, and grateful for my interest in his career. That we share the same birthday (May 22) and that he lives in Southern California just a few miles from where I grew up probably forever seals our friendship. I was happy to see Leong at this year’s Circle K NHRA Winternationals and chatted briefly with him about his great Winternationals history (which included an interesting three-peat: a Top Gas win with Danny Ongais in 1964 and Top Fuel wins in 1965 and 1966 with Don Prudhomme and Mike Snively, respectively) and about how he rebounded from that 1969 disaster to win the Winternationals Funny Car title the next two years – in 1970 with Reyes and in 1971 with the late Butch Maas – then followed up with him earlier this week to get the full story about his transition to Funny Car to contribute to our ongoing history lessons about the class before we move into the 1970s.

Roland Leong, right, with driver Mike Snively and Danny "Buzz" Broussard.

Leong had always been a dragster guy, running his own gas dragster in his native Hawaii before transitioning Stateside to continue his drag racing career and getting work at the Dragmaster race car emporium.

We all know what happened next. He got a Top Fuel dragster from Kent Fuller in late 1964 and crashed it on one of his first runs, hired Prudhomme to drive, and together they won the 1965 Winternationals and U.S. Nationals and never looked back.

Prudhomme ventured out on his own in 1966, so Leong hired Snively, whom he had met at the Dragmaster shop a few years earlier, and amazingly repeated the Hawaiian’s 1965 season, again winning in Pomona and Indy, and continued to win major events such as the March Meet and the Hot Rod Magazine Championship Drags in Riverside, Calif., in the next two seasons, but the handwriting was on the wall when it came to finances.

“When the Funny Cars first came out with those crazy altered wheelbases, to us dragster guys, they weren’t ‘real’ race cars, and they weren’t running at the national events, but when Mike and I were touring back East in 1968, I could see that the Funny Car guys were getting a lot more dates than we did,” he said. “We had dates, but it just seemed like the Funny Cars had become a lot more popular and began looking like real cars. I think I was one of the first of the dragster guys to switch to Funny Car.”

Even though Leong already had a dragster for the 1969 season almost complete at Don Long’s shop, he decided in October to switch classes. He called Logghe for a chassis and had his car shortly before the Winternationals. His long association with Chrysler as his engine of choice earned him a new Dodge Charger body to go atop the framerails. Now all he needed was a driver.

By late 1968, the relationship between Leong and Snively had deteriorated to the point they couldn’t continue anyway. When word got out that Leong was building a flopper, drivers wasted no time beating down his door (a frequent occurrence throughout his long career and numerous driver changes).

Larry Reyes and Leong and the first Hawaiian Funny Car.

Enter Larry Reyes.

Reyes had grown up in California and raced at the fabled Santa Ana Drags as early as 1955 but had moved back East to drive the Memphis, Tenn.-based Kingfish Barracuda Funny Car of Larry Coleman and Bill Taylor in 1967. After the Kingfish car and name were sold to T.B. Smallwood, Coleman, Taylor, and Reyes partnered again to run the successful Super Cuda in 1968. Reyes also had his own car at the time, which was creating some conflict with his good friend Taylor. In fact, Reyes was in Southern California, at Keith Black's shop in South Gate, Calif., getting parts for his own car when he ran into Leong.

"I knew who Roland was and had seen him race but had never actually met him," recalled Reyes. "He came up and introduced himself to me. He told me that he was building a Funny Car, which I already knew because everyone wanted to drive it. He said, 'I was wondering if you'd be interested in driving it.' I told him that I had a ride already, but I would think about it. He called me a week or two later and asked me if I'd thought about it, and I decided to do it. I heard later that Gene Snow had recommended me to Roland, but there were a lot of guys who were good-naturedly mad at me, guys like Steve Bovan who told me they'd turned in résumés to Roland and everything."

At first, longtime dragster guy Leong could only shake his head at his new race car.

“It had a fuel motor, but I didn’t know anything about automatic transmissions, and the whole car was sprung with traction bars and shocks and had wheelie bars and all kinds of [stuff] us dragster guys had never seen before. I knew how to make power, and Reyes had some experience with automatic transmissions, so we figured it out."

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The Los Angeles Times devoted half of its Sports section front page to the crash, as shot by photographer Don Cormier.
With just a few shakedown runs, the team headed to Pomona for the 1969 season-opening Winternationals, but Reyes already has misgivings.

"As soon as I got into that car, I didn't like it," he told me. "The braking system didn’t work; it wouldn’t steer or turn. At Pomona, I had to stage in high gear because I couldn't hold the car on the line in low. I said to myself, 'What have I done?' The car was too big, and I couldn't see out of it. I remember sitting on the starting line, ready to stage, with the car idling, yanking the belts tight, and saying, 'Lord, please don’t let me hurt anyone.' "

Launching in high gear cost e.t., plus the car was a spooky handler during his qualifying runs, forcing Reyes to lift early and pull the chute, but he nonetheless gutted it out and made the field on the bump spot with an off-pace 8.33; by contrast, Tom McEwen was at the head of the pack with a 7.79.

Reyes drew Mike Hamby in round one and had just turned on the win light, 8.14, 181.45 to 8.58, 167.91, when things went really bad.

The car got loose in the lights, and the rear end came around. Reyes had avoided a nearly similar incident in qualifying by quickly deploying the chute, but this time, there was no saving the car. It swapped ends and became airborne and flew an estimated 200 feet through the Pomona shutdown area. It landed on its lid, slid for a moment on its roof, then rolled a half-roll and landed on all four wheels, chucking the body in the process. Reyes emerged unhurt.

Looking back, it’s easy now for Leong to see what the problem was.

I had never seen this sequence before, shot by George Lee.

“I admit that I didn’t even really know much about the bodies; all I knew was that guys like [Don] Nicholson who had those first Mercurys, the bodies flew because wind got under the front end, so guys started putting what they called a scoop on the front end to keep the wind out,” he said. “I remember that after we got our first body, I called the guys at Chrysler and asked them if we needed a real spoiler, too, and they told me that they were just running a stock spoiler on their NASCAR bodies, and that would be all we needed. [The cars were running about the same speed; the pole position for that year’s Daytona 500 was won at 188 mph.] What they didn’t take into account was that their stock cars weighed twice as much as our Funny Car and sat lower to the ground. It’s no surprise that the ass end got loose and the car flew.”

Logghe’s Jay Howell was at the race, so Leong immediately commissioned a replacement, and, thinking that the bulky Charger body might be the problem, he rebuilt with what was known then as a “mini Charger” body, some 6 inches narrower, 16 inches shorter, and, just as important, 2 inches lower, built by Ron Pellegrini at his famed Fiberglass Ltd. shop.

(The 1969 Long dragster chassis that Leong had ordered did not go to waste; Prudhomme bought it from Leong, and it became the Wynn’s Winder. While Leong was waiting for the Funny Car to be repaired, he tuned on Prudhomme’s car and won the National Open at Stardust Int’l Raceway in Las Vegas.)

(Above) The Hawaiian rebounded from its Pomona crash to win three races over Memorial Day weekend. (Below) From right, Leong, Reyes, OCIR track manager Mike Jones, Keith Black, and John Mazmanian.

In late May, Reyes made the long trip back to Michigan to fetch the new car and towed it back to Southern California, where Leong couldn’t wait to get the new piece on the track, and their Memorial Day weekend comeback could not have been more spectacular. With shoe-polish lettering personally (and quite neatly) applied by Leong, the new Hawaiian won three times in its comeback.

"We had a match race at Irwindale against the Freight Train [Top Gas dragster] on Friday night and won that,” Leong recalls. “On Saturday night, we won the Hang 10 500 at Orange County – and got the $500 for low e.t. of every round – and on Sunday, we went to Carlsbad and won that, too. I think we won something like $8,000 to $10,000.”

“That was a big achievement for anyone, and that money meant a lot to us,” said Reyes. “Roland told me, 'Man, you saved us,' because we were hurting for money, and I told him, 'No, we helped ourselves.' We won a lot of races with that car."

Leong had sold his 1968 Hawaiian dragster to Texas-based Jackie Peebles, who ran a chrome plating shop. As an additional thanks for the car, Peebles invited Leong to have the parts on his newly painted Hawaiian tricked out, and Leong accepted. With the car now show-worthy, Leong and Reyes headed out on a successful match race tour.

Leong and Reyes did not run any more national events that season, but when Indy rolled around, Prudhomme reached out to his old friend for help. Leong couldn’t resist but already had his car booked for three days at Great Lakes Dragaway, so he sent Reyes by himself, telling him, “Put 85 percent [nitro] in it and don’t mess with it.”

Reyes won all three days at Great Lakes, and Leong and Prudhomme won Indy again together (as they would again in 1970). All things considered, an amazing weekend.

“At the time, I didn’t really realize how good of a driver Larry really was,” said Leong. “We didn’t have any slipper clutch or any of that [BS] back then, so getting the car down those match race tracks was tough. I have to give him a lot of credit for the races we won. He was as responsible for our success as I was.”

(Above) Leong and Reyes won the 1970 Winternationals together. (Below) Reyes, far lane, spotted Leonard Hughes a big advantage in the 1970 Gatornationals final and would have caught him if he hadn't shut off.

Leong and Reyes remained good friends long after they parted ways and got together 40 years later for this shot at the 2010 Winternationals.

One of the many races they won together was the 1970 Winternationals, in their return to Pomona a year after the terrifying top-end tumble. Dick Bourgeois led qualifying with a 7.53 in Don Cook’s Chevy; by contrast, the Hawaiian was down in the No. 14 spot with a 7.73. Leong and Reyes stepped up to a 7.54 in round one to beat Rich Siroonian in John Mazmanian’s 'Cuda, then advanced to the final round on red-lights by Kelly Chadwick and Leonard Hughes.

Snow, who would win three of seven events that season, as well as the world championship, was heavily favored over the Hawaiian based on his low e.t. blast of 7.30 in the semifinals but slowed to a 7.83 in the final. Reyes got out on him at the green and held on for the win with a 7.67.

Leong did not plan on racing at the Gatornationals but agreed to run a second car for Candies & Hughes at the event, which led to the first all-team final. Hughes, in the team’s new car, "beat" Reyes, in the team's battle-tested '69 car, on a holeshot, 7.29 to 7.12, in a race that was decided before the two cars staged.

"In the staging lanes before the final, they told me I had to let the new car win because they had a sponsorship coming if the new car would win,” confirmed Reyes. “I hated doing it, but I sat on the starting line when he left, ran it hard, then shut it off early. The car would have probably run a 6.95. Paul Candies told me later that he regretted doing that because that car could have been the first one to run in the sixes that day.”

Reyes stayed with Leong until just before the 1970 Nationals, when they parted company and Pat Foster took over.

"I just didn’t like traveling," admitted Reyes. "Roland kind of wanted to go a different way, and there were no hard feelings; still aren't. He's been a good friend over the years. I had a good time and learned a lot. If I had to do it over again, I might have stayed longer.” Reyes’ driving career ended in June 1971 when he was paralyzed in a racing accident after reuniting with Coleman and Taylor on the Super Cuda.

Foster finished the season for Leong, then was replaced by Maas for 1971. Maas had been introduced by Leong to Prudhomme and drove Prudhomme’s Top Fueler at the 1970 Supernationals and actually earned his Funny Car license in Prudhomme’s Hot Wheels ’Cuda (becoming one of the few guys  to drive Prudhomme’s cars while he was still driving), so they were all well acquainted.

Leong also won the 1971 Winternationals with driver Butch Maas, but they were lucky to escape this tire-smoking run in round two against Rich Siroonian before they ended up in the Pomona winner's circle.

A new Logghe car was ordered – the first of the narrow-chassis, Top Fuel roll-cage designs – and carried Leong and Maas to victory at the 1971 Winternationals, with a fair bit of breaks along the way. Reyes qualified No. 5 with a 7.12, behind teammates Jake Johnston (6.94) and Snow (7.10), Richard Tharp in the Blue Max (7.11), and Reyes, now driving for Mazmanian in his brand-new Barracuda (7.12).

After an easy 7.17 to 8.06 victory over “the Action Man,” Kenney Goodell, Maas lined up against Siroonian, in Mazmanian’s ’70 entry, in round two but blazed the tires at the green. Fortunately for Leong and Maas, Siroonian’s car launched into a 2-foot wheelstand, forcing him to pedal. The candy 'Cuda touched down, and, seeing the Hawaiian’s plight, Siroonian nailed the gas again and went into an even bigger wheelie. Maas recovered traction and streaked by for a 7.26 win.

Maas was slated to face No. 2 qualifier Snow in the semifinals, but Snow had shelled the rear end during his second-round win and had given the team’s only spare to Johnston, who had suffered similar breakage in his first-round win. Without a spare, Snow had to sit out, giving Maas a freebie into the final.

Waiting in the final was Leroy Goldstein and the vaunted Ramchargers Dodge, which had run 7.09 in beating Johnston in the semifinals. Knowing that they had their work cut out for them, Leong poured the coals to the car, which responded with a stunning low e.t. of the meet run, 6.93, that allowed Maas to drive around Goldstein’s 7.08 holeshot bid.

Maas continued to drive for Leong but received second-degree burns in a match race fire in Cincinnati in late spring and headed home to recover while Leong began work on a new car. With Maas still on the mend, Leong hired Bobby Rowe to drive for the remainder of the year. Rowe left to drive for Don Schumacher in 1972 and was replaced by Leroy Chadderton (in the first Revell-backed Hawaiian, a beautiful John Buttera-built Dodge Charger).

Chadderton drove for Leong through June 1973, when the entire rig was stolen from the parking lot of a Holiday Inn in Gary, Ind., and was replaced by Canadian wunderkind Gordie Bonin, who totaled the body with an off-track excursion in Detroit in his second outing with the Hawaiian. Bonin stayed the year, then left to rejoin his former teammates Ron Hodgson and Gordon Jenner for 1974. Leong hired “Mighty Mike” Van Sant for a short stint and replaced him with Denny Savage, whose last ride in the car came in a ball of fire at that year’s Supernationals in Ontario, Calif.

Roland Leong has had dozens of drivers in his career, including Mike Dunn (above), who drove for him 1981-84, and Jim White (below), who with Leong won the U.S. Nationals in 1991, where they were congratulated by NHRA founder Wally Parks. 

Norm Wilcox filled the Hawaiian’s cockpit in 1975, and Larry Arnold took over in 1976 before leaving midyear to start his own crankshaft company. Ron Colson enjoyed the longest tenure of any of Leong’s drivers, from mid-1976 through the end of the 1980 season, when he retired after an impressive third-place finish. Mike Dunn, who had served as a crewmember on the car since 1977, took over in 1981, with a car sponsored by Hawaiian Punch. They survived a number of calamities together in 1983 – including a trip into the Columbus catch net and his infamous barrel roll at the World Finals at OCIR – but Dunn was injured in the car in the summer of 1984 when the car broke the rear end during a match race in Kansas City, Mo. The coupler shattered and pierced his left leg and broke the bone.

Leong hired Rick Johnson to finish the season and stayed with him into 1985, when they won Le Grandnational and finished a Leong-career-high second in points that year behind only Kenny Bernstein.

Johnny West saddled up for 1986 and drove the car for three seasons, scoring a pair of runner-ups and three top-10 finishes. Jim White took over in 1989 and also raced three seasons for Leong, but with much greater success, including another Indy win in 1991 (a weekend that also included a victory in the Big Bud Shootout) and three other victories and three runner-ups. They finished second in 1991, which was the last year for the Hawaiian Punch sponsorship because the company was sold. After sitting out 1992, Leong signed a three-year deal with the Hawaiian tourism board beginning in 1993 and hired old pal Bonin back into the seat, but things quickly turned sour.

“The bottom line is that one of the politicians lied to me,” said Leong. “He gave us just enough money to get in trouble, so to speak, and told me he’d get us the money for the rest of the year later, and it turned out he never had any intentions of doing that. That was the end of my time as a car owner.”

Leong went on to become a tuner for hire and won the Winternationals again, in 1998 with Ron Capps driving Prudhomme’s car, and has since become the go-to tuner for the nostalgia Funny Car ranks, where he continues a winning legacy that started five decades ago.

'Jungle Clare' SandersFriday, February 19, 2016

Clare Sanders, then and now

By 1969, the Funny Car class was in full bloom and contested at three NHRA national events. After its debut at the 1966 World Finals, the fledgling class was showcased in 1967 at the Springnationals in Bristol, Tenn., and the U.S. Nationals, which were won, respectively, by Tommy Grove and Doug Thorley. NHRA held no Funny Car races in 1968 but returned with three in 1969: the Winternationals, Springnationals, and U.S. Nationals. The latter two were both won by Danny Ongais in Mickey Thompson’s Mach I, but the 1969 season opener was won by 27-year-old Clare Sanders, at the wheel of “Jungle Jim” Liberman’s Chevy II.

Sanders, now 74, and the beautifully restored flopper were both at this year’s Circle K NHRA Winternationals as part of NHRA’s 50 years of Funny Car celebration. Sanders was warmly greeted by SoCal’s famously nostalgic fans and took part in a panel discussion Saturday with fellow former flopper pilots Don Prudhomme, Kenny Bernstein, Ed McCulloch, Al Segrini, and Tom Prock. I caught up with him earlier this week to reminisce about his turn in the Pomona spotlight.

It was a long road to the Pomona winner’s circle from Sanders’ childhood in Alaska, where his father was in civil service and the military. His family later moved to the lower 48, and it was in Washington where Sanders began racing in 1960, partnering with mechanic Jim St. Clair on a number of cars while he was attending college in Idaho. When the Christmas Tree began replacing the flag starter, Sanders became especially adept at matching the rhythm of the five-bulb countdown and gained a reputation as a “leaver.”

Sanders and St. Clair moved to San Jose, Calif., and the hotbed of Northern California racing in 1963-64. Fate smiled on the duo when St. Clair met Jack Groner, a retired businessman looking for “a little excitement” in his life. Groner had a thick wallet and Sanders and St. Clair a head full of dreams; it was the perfect match. Interestingly, their first endeavor as J&J Enterprises in 1965 was not a race car but a liquid traction compound for drag racing that replaced the arduous task of applying and “brooming in” powdered wood rosin to the track surface. St. Clair came up with the mix, which combined a synthetic rosin, methyl isobutyl ketone, and toluene. Groner figured out how to mix it all together, and Sanders, who also had some knowledge of chemistry, came up with the very ‘60s name: “Boss Bite.”

“It was the first of its kind and really popular, especially for the first injected Funny Car-style of cars that had a lot more power than the tracks could handle,” recalls Sanders. “We’d either spray the track or the drivers would paint it onto their tires. It was very popular, and the company became very successful; the money was really rolling in. We had a big bank account and sat down one day and said, ‘Well, do we want to keep building Boss Bite or do we want to go racing?’ We all voted to go racing. We cashed everything in and went racing.”

Courtesy Clare Sanders Collection

Their first car, dubbed Lime Fire for its factory-paint color, was a huge hit. Built to stock dimensions and retaining somewhat of a street-car resemblance – down to the real chrome trim – as desired by money man Groner, the Barracuda was once called “The World’s Most Beautiful Funny Car." Using the popular Logghe chassis as inspiration, they built their own chassis and fitted it with a 392 Chrysler backed to a Torqueflite transmission. The show-car-worthy entry, towed to the races behind Groner’s Cadillac, not only won in its debut at an NHRA divisional meet at Southern California’s Carlsbad Raceway – running in Super eliminator because Funny Car was still not widely accepted as a class unto itself – but also caught the eye of Hot Rod magazine photographers at the event, who featured the car in their December 1967 issue, further gaining them popularity and bookings.

Jim Liberman, and Brutus, 1965; he was barely out of his teens.

The trio had been sharing shop space with Funny Car pioneer Lew Arrington and his new driver, a kid named Russell James Liberman, a transplanted Pennsylvania-born high school dropout who was building headers at Goodie’s Speed Shop in San Jose. Despite being barely out of his teens, Liberman already was driving wild cars like the injected-nitro Hercules Nova, Arrington’s blown-on-nitro Brutus GTO, and, ultimately, his own Goodies-sponsored Chevy II, in which he earned his memorable “Jungle Jim” nickname for his wild, on-track performances. They all became fast friends, and when the Lime Fire was ready, they toured together, along with NorCal-based Don Williamson and his Hairy Canary Plymouth Valiant.

“ ‘Jungle’ was always a little ahead of us; he was a sharp guy,” Sanders recalled fondly. “He was a racer, 100 percent; you could tell it and feel it. He was good in the car and good at getting sponsors. He did all of the things that we all tried to emulate. As much as he’s known for his showmanship, in my opinion, what he did best was win races.”

The Lime Fire ran hard – at one pointing posting a 7.71 at Orange County Int’l Raceway, at the time the quickest pass in class history, according to Sanders – and scored a runner-up at the 1968 AHRA Winternationals at Beeline Dragway outside of Phoenix, finishing second after losing the driveshaft in the final against Eddie Schartman. By late 1968, the thin-tube Lime Fire chassis, built for speed and not the long-haul grind of match racing, was on its last legs, and Liberman, with his popularity growing virtually by the week, decided to add a second car – pretty much unprecedented at the time – to keep up with match race demand. He looked no further than his traveling buddy Sanders, who wasted no time in accepting the offer.

“I worked on Jim’s crew while the second car was being built, and we were at a match race in Suffolk, Va., one night, and he caught me totally off guard when he said, ‘You know, I’ve never seen my car make a run. Why don’t you drive it tonight?’ I put on my firesuit with his helmet goggles, and we beat Malcolm Durham that evening with a new track record,” Sanders recalled.

The new car, with a Logghe chassis, Fiberglass Ltd. Chevy II body, and supercharged 427 Chevy power, was a twin to Liberman’s car, with the exception of an inch-and-a-half engine setback for better traction on the more marginal tracks on Sanders’ match race docket. Sponsorship was provided by Philadelphia speed shop entrepreneur Steve Kanuika.

“Compared to the Lime Fire, ‘Jungle’s’ car was a dream to drive,” he recalled. “My first race for ‘Jungle’ was in late 1968 against Don Nicholson at Delmar, Del. The car was still just painted white pearl, which we sprayed on the car before the candy blue, and we split the first two rounds. In the final, we both ran 7.86, and I beat him on a holeshot. That was a good start.”

The team’s first major outing together was the 1969 AHRA Winternationals. An anecdotal story is floating around about the two running one another in the semifinals, with Liberman winning but turning the car over to Sanders to run the final against Dickie Harrell, but Sanders says that never happened. “We never swapped cars in the middle of a race,” he insists. “Sometimes, but not often, we’d trade cars before a race, but never in the middle.”

All of this preamble, of course, leads to the NHRA Winternationals in Pomona and the official West Coast debut of the Funny Car class. The racers turned out by the dozens, with 40 or more cars trying out for the 16-car field. (“Everyone was there,” marveled Sanders. “It was like walking into Carnegie Hall.”) Traction was a little tricky because, due to weather/time concerns, the Funny Cars were not allowed to burn out across the starting line as they were at match races, and Liberman did not qualify for the field. Sanders’ car, however, qualified an impressive No. 3 in a talent-laden field, but everyone was well behind Tom McEwen’s direct-drive Tirend Activity Booster Barracuda, powered by a Tim Beebe-prepped 392 Chrysler. (Beebe would have more reasons to celebrate at the event: He and partner/driver John Mulligan won in Top Fuel.)

Tom McEwen 7.796, 193.66
Low qualifier Tom McEwen
Don Schumacher 8.024, 193.65
Clare Sanders 8.035, 191.08
Ray Alley 8.148, 183.67
Randy Walls 8.204, 180.00
Rich Siroonian 8.223, 185.11
Pat Foster 8.240, 181.45
Mike Hamby 8.256, 187.89
Marv Eldridge 8.277, 185.95  
Kelly Chadwick
Dave Beebe 8.277, 188.28
Kelly Chadwick 8.298, 187.89
Art Ward 8.300, 185.56
Leonard Hughes 8.311, 187.89
Eddie Schartman 8.326, 174.75
Ron Leslie 8.326, 170.13
Larry Reyes 8.331, 180.72

Among those joining Liberman on the sidelines were hitters like Ongais, Nicholson, Roger Lindamood, Jack Chrisman, Charlie Allen, and Della Woods.

Liberman’s DNQ proved a boon to Sanders, as “Jungle” was able to apply his tuning magic to the Chevy, which came to life in eliminations, and when McEwen surprisingly blew his engine in a round-one loss to Marv Eldridge’s Fiberglass Trends AMX, he and Leonard Hughes became the favorites.

Round one: Rich Siroonian holeshots "Fast Eddie" Schartman
The flyin' Hawaiian

Hughes and the unlettered Candies & Hughes Barracuda steamed to low e.t. of the first round with an 8.01 to beat Randy Walls’ 8.22 while Sanders was right there with an 8.09 over “Professor” Kelly Chadwick’s 8.53.

The rest of the round went like this: Rich Siroonian slapped a holeshot on Schartman and his SOHC-powered Air Lift Rattler Cougar, and even “Fast Eddie’s” 8.39 couldn’t catch “Big John” Mazmanian’s candy-apple 'Cuda’s 8.45. Art Ward lost traction in Roger Guzman’s Assassination Too Corvair, falling to Ray Alley’s 8.41 in the Engine Masters Barracuda. Ron Leslie’s High Country Cougar ran 8.17 to defeat Pat Foster in Mickey Thompson’s other Mustang in a battle of SOHC-powered machines. Dave Beebe smoked hard in Nelson Carter’s Super Chief Charger against Don Schumacher’s 8.24. The round’s most spectacular moment came at the conclusion of Larry Reyes’ 8.14, 181.45-mph victory over Mike Hamby when his Roland Leong-owned Hawaiian Charger took flight in the lights and soared 200 feet before crashing back to earth.

Hughes looked unbeatable again in round two with a 7.86 at a sizzling 198.23 mph (top speed of the meet) to beat Eldridge’s 8.35. Alley took an 8.32 bye run in the Hawaiian’s absence, and Siroonian eked out a win over Schumacher’s John Hogan-tuned Stardust Barracuda, 8.10 to 8.12. Sanders, meanwhile, threw his hat further into the ring of contention with a 7.88 at 181.08 that dispatched Leslie’s early-shutoff pass.

(Above) Sanders beat Leonard Hughes and the Candies & Hughes 'Cuda in the semi's and Ray Alley's Engine Masters Dodge in the final (below).

Sanders is flanked in the Pomona winner's circle by mechanic Carl Dubow, race queen Marsha Bennett, and Bobbie and Jim Liberman.

All eyes were on Sanders and Hughes in the semifinal clash of 7.8-second cars, but Hughes – who had grenaded his best engine in qualifying – lost another engine early and watched Sanders soar into the final with low e.t. of eliminations, 7.80, despite “tuliping” an exhaust valve (common for those early nitro Chevys), which necessitated a between-rounds cylinder-head swap. Alley joined Sanders in the final, earning a white-knuckle 8.270 to 8.271 victory over Siroonian.

With the eyes of the sport – not to mention the Wide World of Sports cameras – looking on, Sanders suited up for the final he was expected to win. He liked to get into the car early to calm the butterflies and get mentally right, and “Jungle” leaned in and told him not to change a thing that he had been doing all day.

The final proved pretty lopsided as Sanders got the win light and the $5,000 payday with a 7.88 at 187.89 over Alley’s 8.11, 187.11.

“It was pretty surreal to get out at the other end, and there’s [ABC’s] Keith Jackson and the cameras,” he said. “The funny thing though was Keith walked up to me and said, ‘Congratulations Jim Liberman on winning the Winternationals.’ People were used to just seeing one ‘Jungle’ car, and I was relatively unknown at the time, so I understand why he was confused. I was so happy, I didn’t care, but he was nice enough to reshoot it for the show [which ran the following weekend].

“The next day, a couple of us went to Disneyland to celebrate, but ‘Jungle’ got on the phone and booked both cars for the rest of the year. We were out and having fun, and he was working; that’s the way he was.”

Liberman hired Larry Petrich as crew chief for Sanders for the rest of the year, with a number of highlights. On the same night, both Sanders and Liberman won “Mr. Chevrolet” races at U.S. 30 Dragway and Capitol Raceway, respectively. Sanders then went off to Kansas City, Mo., where he beat “Mr. Chevrolet” himself, Dickie Harrell, on his home turf. Fans seldom got to see both “Jungle” cars at the same track on the same date, so much in demand was the “Jungle Jim” name. And although Sanders admits there were times when fans came to a track expecting to see Liberman instead of him, eventually, he developed his own strong following. Throughout the summer, both cars ran pretty much every other day, and, according to Sanders’ logbook, they won 86 percent of their races.

The Super Camaro

Sanders also wheeled the famed Chi-Town Hustler

The Ramchagers Dodge was Sanders' last ride

Without putting too much of a fine point on it, Liberman’s personal life changed pretty significantly late in the 1969 season, the team dynamics changed, and Sanders decided it was time to move on. He partnered in 1970 with New Orleans-based Frank Huff on the Chevy-powered Super Camaro (and, later, Super Vega).

“We had a lot of bookings with that car, and it paid real well, but by the end of the year, the tires had gotten a lot better, and the Hemis were just running away from the Chevys,” said Sanders, who was about to get another major career boost. “Austin Coil came over to me one weekend and told me that Pat Minick was going to stop driving the Chi-Town Hustler, and they were looking for a replacement. ‘Are you tired yet of driving this Chevy?’ he asked me. ‘Well, yes I am,’ so I went to work for them. I was a lot smaller than Pat and had to put pillows in the seat, but that was a great car. It was like driving a Buick. It was a big, huge race car.”

)He thinks he got Coil’s attention when he filled in for Schumacher at a race at New England Dragway and quickly mastered the new clutch combo in the car; at this point, most cars still had an automatic transmission with a footbrake, and Schumacher’s car had the now-familiar hand brake. It also was the first car that Sanders had driven that had a butterfly steering wheel.)

After finishing 1971 with the Chi-Town team, Sanders got the call from Ramchargers President and crew chief Pete Goulet to drive their famed car, which in 1970 had broken the six-second barrier with Leroy Goldstein at the wheel. Goldstein had moved on to drive for Candies & Hughes and been replaced by Arnie Behling, who didn’t work out. Sanders helped the team sort through some handling issues, and the car became a real runner again, dominating the 1972 IHRA Summernationals and setting the IHRA national record.

Sanders drove for the team for a year and a half before it dissolved as factory backing began to dry up across the class. Looking for steady employment and a future beyond drag racing, Sanders went to work for Snap-on Tools driving a truck and in a 30-year career worked his way into management and sales. The experience he gained there led to his post-retirement gig, building websites for the likes of Don Garlits, Tommy Ivo, and a bunch of his old racing buddies.

Sanders’ driving career only lasted about six years, but he packed a lot into that short span, winning national events and driving for three of the sport’s iconic teams. Does he have any regrets about not staying behind the wheel?

“Pretty much every day,” he answered with a laugh. “The first couple of years after I quit were an adjustment, but it’s very rewarding to know people still remember me. The reception I got at the Winternationals was phenomenal. A lot of people came up to tell me they were there when I won. It was very gratifying.”

You can check out more on Sanders, his career, and his cars at his website, www.claresanders.com.

'Fast Eddie' SchartmanFriday, February 12, 2016

We began this whole odyssey into the early days of Funny Car with the announcement a few weeks ago that NHRA would be saluting 50 years of Funny Cars this season, with the starting point for the celebration being the 1966 season, when NHRA handed out its first Funny Car eliminator trophy to Eddie Schartman and his Ohio-based Mercury Comet at the 1966 World Finals in Tulsa, Okla.

As we have discussed the last few weeks, the roots of the class are well-defined in general yet somewhat murky in absolutes, so it’s time to bring it all back to that 1966 season, where some better clarity exists, and who better to help than “Fast Eddie” himself?

I caught up with lifelong Ohioan Schartman, now 78, earlier this week at his winter home in Florida to talk about those early days of the class and his involvement in it.

First, a little background. Schartman, who was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2012, actually grew up in a dirt-track-racing family, where his father, Ed Sr., was a regular competitor. Being around racing instilled in young Eddie a love not only of racing but also of all things mechanical, and because the family owned a wrecking yard, he got plenty of hands-on experience at tearing apart cars. In school, he devoured the lessons from every shop class he took, all aimed at achieving his ultimate goal of becoming a racer.

He built his first drag car, a flathead-powered '40 Ford, when he was 14. By the time he graduated from Berea High School in 1956, he was already a skilled racer. He journeyed from Cleveland to Flagler Beach, Fla., for Daytona Speed Week in a street-driven ’56 Chevy with a stroked-out 338-cid engine and won everything in sight, and shortly afterward, he set the NHRA B/Gas record with a full-race ‘55 Chevy.

(Above) "The Ugly Duckling" (Below) Eddie Schartman's A/FX Comet

Schartman went to work for the Cleveland-based Jackshaw Chevrolet dealership, which had a pretty good pipeline to Chevy high-performance parts and was frequented by Chevy’s biggest doorslammer star, “Dyno Don” Nicholson. Schartman was running a ‘62 Chevy out of the dealership that regularly sent the local Ford drivers packing, and the two became friends, which led to a job offer from Nicholson, who asked Schartman to move to Atlanta and build engines for him in 1964.

Soon, Nicholson got a Mercury factory deal and a new A/FX Comet station wagon known lovingly but unflatteringly as “The Ugly Duckling.” Schartman took over the wheel of Nicholson's '62 Chevy – for 50 percent of the winnings – and made a killing down South.

Nicholson’s new bosses at Mercury, however, did not appreciate still seeing his name on a Chevrolet, so when Nicholson got a new Comet coupe in 1965, Schartman got the Comet wagon. Schartman claimed the Mr. Stock Eliminator win at the 1965 NASCAR Winter Drags, but he had grown tired of working for someone else and handing over half of his winnings, and his relationship with Nicholson had become quite rocky. Mercury so valued its young racer that when he demanded his own car, it gave him a Comet – and a lucrative (for the time) $5,000 sponsorship from the Cleveland-area Mercury dealers – albeit with a wedge motor instead of the cammers bestowed upon others on the factory deal to finish 1965.

(Above) Don Nicholson's Comet at the 1965 Winternationals with stock wheelbase and (below) after his alterations. Notice how the word "Comet" had to be made smaller to accommodate the elongated wheelwells.
Nicholson's Comet graced the cover of the June 1966 edition of Hot Rod.

Nicholson's flip-top car got a lot of double takes in its debut at Irwindale Raceway in early 1966 at the AHRA Winternationals, but you had to look fast. The car lost its body on its maiden pass (below).
The bodyless chassis gave a good look at the coil-over shocks and injected engine.

While all of this was going on for Schartman, his bosses at Mercury had bigger fish to fry. When the Dodge and Plymouth racers began showing up in 1965 with radical altered-wheelbase cars, their better weight distribution and acid-dipped, anything-goes bodies gave them a huge advantage over cars like Nicholson’s Comet, so Nicholson followed suit, offsetting his chassis and adding an 18-percent engine setback, but when his bosses at Mercury saw it, they were not pleased, to say the least, and by some accounts were ready to wash their hands of this whole drag racing business.

Fortunately, Mercury Racing boss Fran Hernandez and right-hand-man Al Turner were there to save the day and, in the process, show the way forward for the class. According to most, Hernandez had his hands full with other factory programs, and it was Turner, a longtime gas dragster racer who also ran a machine shop at night to fund his own racing efforts, who took the football and ran with it.

Knowing that a car that didn’t reasonably resemble a street car would never pass muster, Turner found inspiration in the famed Mooneyham & Sharp 554 Ford of Gene Mooneyham and Al Sharp. Externally, the car looked like a pretty stock ’34 Ford coupe, but beneath the body was a tube chassis with a center-mounted driver position and a blown nitro Hemi whose injectors were barely visible at the base of the windshield.

Turner went as far as to build a 1/25th-scale model out of balsa wood to show his bosses for approval – touting especially its stock appearance – and received their blessing. He looked homeward, calling on brothers Ron and Gene Logghe – whose Detroit-area Logghe Stamping Co. had begun to make a name for itself with dragster chassis – to build the chromoly frame with a stock 116-inch wheelbase and stock proportions. Multiadjustable shock absorbers were added in what Turner said was the first use of coil-over shocks on a drag car. The Logghes were sworn not only to secrecy but also had to agree not to make a similar chassis available to other racers for one year.

Turner worked with the Ford design studio to create a clay buck of a ’66 Comet body, which was then delivered to Plastigage Custom Fabrication of Jackson, Mich. The first bodies were incredibly heavy – the target weight was 250 pounds – and were rejected and had to be remade. Still, even with a Plexiglas windshield, they were prohibitively heavy because the original design called for the bodies to be bolted to the chassis and then lifted off for between-rounds servicing. According to Gene Logghe’s son, John, it was his uncle Ron who came up with the idea of hinging the body in the back, creating the “flopper” as we know it today. Drag racing’s “Tin Man,” Al Bergler, fabricated the aluminum floor, firewalls, wheelwells, and interior panels.

The Ford 427 SOHC cammer engine had low-stack Hilborn injectors that hid nicely beneath the body (the cars would not be supercharged until 1967). The cammer was mated to a three-speed manual transmission for its initial passes in South Florida in late 1965, but Nicholson was having problems hitting the shift points and kept overrevving the engine, so an automatic transmission with a 4,000-rpm stall torque converter was substituted. The Logghe brothers later created a ratchet shifter that made things even easier.

The flip-top Comet’s debut, at the AHRA Winternationals at Southern California’s Irwindale Raceway, was memorable but for the wrong reasons. The front grille caved in on the car’s maiden voyage, triggering the body latch and sending the Comet body soaring into the SoCal sky. Hayden Proffitt, another of Mercury’s California aces, helped Turner load the remains onto his flatbed truck and burn it to keep it from falling into the hands of the competition.

The next edition of the body (with the latch now reversed) was sent through the Ford wind tunnel, which highlighted the need for a spoiler beneath the front bumper, which solved the problem, and Nicholson went on to great success with the car, but without incident, as he also flipped the second car while match racing back east.

Jack Chrisman also got one of the new cars (though his was a "convertible" version, which later burned to the ground), as did the Colorado-based Kenz & Leslie team (who also kited one of their early cars), and, of course, Schartman.

The Schartman-Nicholson rivalry was intense in 1966 and 1967. (Above) "Fast Eddie" beat "Dyno Don" at the 1966 World Finals to claim NHRA's first Funny Car win.

Schartman will never forget the first ride in his new flip-top Comet, in December 1965 at Motor City Dragway. Turner had called him to the track, telling him only that his new car for 1966 was ready.

“I walked in there, looked at the car, and said, ‘What the hell is this?’ " he recalled. “It was a dragster with a body on it and the driver in the back seat and not the front seat, where you belong. I told them, ‘I can’t drive something like that.’ My car would run 125 [mph], but these things would do more than 160. He just said, ‘Well, that’s your baby. Get in.’ They were a handful; they never wanted to go straight. On my first pass, I went 166 mph and took out the [finish-line] lights. It took me several runs to get the hang of it, and, like any drag racer back then, you got used to the speed and loved it. Those cars weren’t like anything else out there, and once we got out there, the demand from the tracks and fans to see those cars was incredible. The phone was always ringing off the hook.”

Mercury had hired nitro-tuning veteran Roy Steffey to help Schartman in 1966, but it wasn’t a partnership that lasted long due to – how shall I say it politely? – “philosophical differences.” Schartman ran 80 to 85 match race dates a year – he also made innumerable appearances at car shows and Boy Scout events on behalf of Mercury –  beginning in the West in the winter, then concentrating on the Midwest and East Coast, winning everywhere he went, with Nicholson as his only real consistent threat in the performance department.

“We were definitely one another’s main competition, and unless we blew something up, there was a good chance we were going to win,” he said modestly. “Everyone was hand-grenading their engines trying to beat us because that was a big deal, but you also have to remember that we were running stock 427 blocks, too, that could only stand so much before blowing the crank out of the bottom. I knew just how much nitro I could put in there and keep the motor together, but if I had to put in over 90 percent, I was probably going to lose the motor.”

The 1966 NHRA Nationals featured dedicated classes for “funny cars” running in S/XS, A/XS, and B/XS. Schartman and his yellow RSE (Roy Steffey Enterprises) Mercury clinched the S/XS trophy with an 8.28 at 174.41 mph over Nicholson.

More than a month later, at the 1966 World Finals, the two types of Funny Cars were divided, with A/XS and B/XS running in a class known as Handicap Experimental Stock and S/XS cars running in a class designated then as Top Funny Car. Among those in competition against Schartman were Nicholson, Chrisman, Larry Reyes in the Kingfish, Maynard Rupp in his wild Gratiot Auto Supply Chevoom Chevelle, and the Kenz & Leslie Mercury. Again, Schartman trumped all, and again he defeated Nicholson for the money, running an 8.38 at 174.08 after Nicholson was forced to abort his run.

Gene Snow’s Rambunctious Dodge Dart, which had won in Comp in Indy running in the C/Fuel dragster class, won the X/S combo over Hubert Platt, who red-lighted in Dick Brannon’s Mustang, which gave Snow the right to meet Schartman in Sunday’s overall match. Snow, who was running considerably slower than Schartman on Saturday, red-lighted trying to make up the disadvantage.

Knowing that blowers were the next big thing, Schartman, who usually wintered in California with Chrisman, hired supercharger-savvy Californian “Famous Amos” Satterlee as his crew chief for 1967. He signed a major sponsorship deal with Air Lift and grabbed another piece of Funny Car history when he made what was said to be the first seven-second run in a stock-bodied car in April at Detroit Dragway. (Nicholson also reportedly laid claim to a similar accomplishment, and Schartman acknowledges that timing systems back then weren’t all that they are today and doesn’t put a lot of stock in those kind of "firsts.")

“I think it was a big deal in those days, especially for the factory guys,” Schartman said. “The bosses would say, ‘Schartman went this e.t., “Dyno,” you’d better get your ass in gear or you won’t get the good parts,’ but we were very competitive with each other those years.

This was a common sight in the late 1960s as Schartman toured extensively.
Schartman's Cougar sported a pedestal-type rear-deck wing for downforce.

“I remember in 1967, we were running Maple Grove [Raceway], and the car was going sideways in the lights because the back end was almost coming off the ground. We figured we had to get some weight on the back end, so one of the guys went to a hardware store and came back with some angle iron that we bolted onto the trunk of the car. It went straight and picked up 5 mph. We’d invented the [rear-deck] spoiler and didn’t even know it. We were going 190, and ‘Dyno’ was still in the 180s, and believe me, he heard about it.”

Schartman went on to win Orange County Int’l Raceway’s prestigious Manufacturers Funny Car Championship that year and also won Irwindale’s Grand Prix and Fremont Dragway’s Northern California Championship.

Major wins in 1968 with the Air Lift Rattler Cougar – which had a pedestal-style rear spoiler – included the AHRA Winternationals and Great Lakes Dragaway’s Night FC Championships, and he posted a runner-up behind Nicholson at the Stardust National Open.

As the speeds increased in the class, so did the accidents and fatalities, especially because anyone could buy a Funny Car chassis. Mercury and Ford, which had merged their racing efforts by this time, informed the factory teams late in 1968 that they were dropping their backing of the Funny Car class. Schartman, who already had sponsor and match race commitments for 1969 for two cars – with Arnie Behling in his ‘68 car – worked out a low-six-figure settlement that allowed him to run the 1969 season.

Schartman was part of the inaugural Winternationals Funny Car field in 1969 with an 8.32 and lost on a holeshot to Rich Siroonian, 8.45 to 8.39, in the first round. Although he was still tearing up the match race scene, he also lost in the first round at the Springnationals and the U.S. Nationals. After fouling against Bruce Larson in Indy, he finished the year with some match racing, then retired from the class.

Schartman switched to Pro Stock in 1970, first with a Cougar, then a Maverick.
Schartman was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2012.

Pro Stock was new to drag racing in 1970 and was a good fit for both Schartman and Nicholson. Schartman started the season with a Boss 429-powered Cougar but soon switched to a Maverick.

So used to winning in Funny Car, Schartman experienced little more than frustration in national event Pro Stock racing, finding the sledding tough against guys like Bill Jenkins, Ronnie Sox, and Bob Glidden. A low point certainly was his disqualification in tech at the 1972 Gatornationals, where his Ford Maverick was not allowed to run in Pro Stock because it had Mercury Comet taillights in it – same parent company, but not the same make. He was allowed to run in B/Gas in Modified eliminator and nearly rode the karma train to victory, losing only in the final round to Dennis Grove.

“The Modified guys were mad because they had to run a ‘professional’ driver, and I just began getting so many bad vibes about the whole Pro Stock thing that I decided I couldn’t run the national events anymore,” he said. “I just started running match races, but even that went bad in 1975 when I started getting rained out so much at match races. The rainout money was like $150, and I just couldn’t afford to do it anymore."

Schartman left racing but not cars, buying and selling cars wholesale, which led to the purchase of multiple dealerships and, later, NAPA Auto Parts stores.

Now retired from business and playing golf every day, Schartman looks back fondly and proudly on his years in the sport.

“We lived and died racing,” he said. “We didn’t do anything but work on our cars and find a place to go racing. It was a great life and left me with a lot of good memories.” 

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