(Above) "Ollie" Morris' back-motor Smokin' White Owl debuted in 1954 and tore up Southern California strips. (Below) Morris, right, and sponsor Harvey Malcomson, of Harvey’s Auto Glass, worked on the car's flathead powerplant (inset).
The car got its nickname from its cylindrical shape and white paint, which reminded some of White Owl cigars, though he was never sponsored by the company.
Although the topic the last few weeks has been the 1970-72 transition from front-engine slingshot to rear-engine dragster in Top Fuel, I got quite a few inquiries and suggestions about other rear-engine cars that predated those discussed in the last two columns.
You don’t have to look through too many Hot Rod magazines from the 1954-55 era to see plenty of dragsters with the engine behind the driver. I even spied future Indy car hero A.J. Foyt at the wheel of Ray Harrelson’s rear-engine belly tanker dragster, which set top speed (121.73 mph) at the Safety Safari’s stop in El Paso, Texas, in the summer of 1955, and just from the photos I’ve perused, at least a half-dozen were at the first Nationals in Great Bend, Kan., in 1955, including late-round finisher Harrelson’s Motor Reco Special, the Green Monster #5 of Walt and Art Arfons, and one of the most famous early rear-engine cars, the Smokin’ White Owl of George “Ollie” Morris, a car that’s truly worthy of our attention here.
Morris, a Navy veteran, spent his first years after World War II track racing and spent way too much time fixing bent chassis and tweaked body parts from numerous collisions, so when the famed Southern California dragstrip opened in Santa Ana in 1950, Morris took to the straight-line course, first with partner Harold Dawson with a hot-running B/Roadster that went 128 mph. To save weight, they removed the firewall, which led to the occasional oil bath. It didn’t take long for him to get that mess behind him – literally.
In 1953, Morris and Bruce Terry built the Smokin’ White Owl in his backyard, using '29 Ford framerails from his roadster, then added a hand-formed aluminum body that was ingeniously designed using a bathtub as an ad hoc wind tunnel. He’d make up scale models of his body design and push them through the water using a stick and observe the turbulence.
The car’s cylindrical body and white paint scheme reminded people of the White Owl brand of cigars and led to the car’s nickname, but he was never sponsored by the company. Harvey Malcomson, of Harvey’s Auto Glass, was his primary backer.
The car notwithstanding, Morris himself already had a few nicknames, including “the Mad Chemist of Baker Street” (where he lived in Santa Ana), due to his experimentations with fuel. His favorite concoction was 97 percent nitro with dashes of methane, ethyl ether, hydrazine, and, finally, benzene, which he used to mask the scent of the other four and earned him his other nickname, “Stinky,” which he celebrated by painting a skunk on his racing helmet.
Initial motivation for the 1,550-pound machine was a 275-cid flathead engine backed by a ’41 Ford side-shift manual transmission, but by 1955, he switched to the new Chevrolet overhead-valve V-8. Smith was so successful at Santa Ana that he was able to turn his winnings into better parts, trading in dozens of trophies (at $5 a pop) to track manager C.J. Hart to buy a quick-change rear end and a better magneto. The car consistently ran more than 140 mph and won a ton of races against the likes of Calvin Rice, the Bean Bandits, and Jack Chrisman, the latter two of whom ultimately also built rear-engine cars.
Morris’ talents caught the eye of Fred Offenhauser Sr., and Morris ultimately became the head engineer for Offenhauser Equipment Corp. During his 30 years with the company, he designed some of its most successful products, including the Dual-Port 360, Dial-A-Flow, Port-O-Sonic, TurboThrust, and EquaFlow 360, and he worked with Carroll Shelby on the intake manifolds used in the 1960s Shelby Mustangs. He died in June 2008, at the age of 81, and left behind an incredible legacy.
A re-creation of Don Garlits' first rear-engine car, built in 1957.
Lest you think that “Big Daddy” arrived late to the rear-engine party in 1971, he and brother Ed, inspired by the success of Morris’ machine, set out to build their own similar car in 1957. Using Ford-T framerails and a 371-cid Oldsmobile engine, they built a high-gear-only machine that had a wheelbase of 100 inches. Ed sat in a surplus aircraft seat just inches ahead of the engine.
They never could get the car to go straight. In its maiden outing at the old airfield in Dunnellon, Fla., the car made hard right turns on back-to-back passes, carrying Ed off the track. They took it home, and at the suggestion of round-track friends, they quickened the steering and returned a few weeks later to Dunnellon, where the car did the exact same thing. The last time, Ed just barely missed hitting two parked cars and threw up his hands in disgust and surrender. “Big Daddy” also wanted no part of driving the evil little car, so they hauled it home and disassembled it, and eventually all of the pieces were lost. The car was re-created in the early 2000s and sits in Garlits’ museum.
The Coleman Bros. rear-engine car
Dennis Friend, proprietor of the Two-To-Go website, passed along a link to a recent eBay auction (since closed) for the Coleman Bros.' rear-engine dragster. According to the information accompanying the auction, the car was built by the Coleman Bros. Speed Shop out of Baltimore around 1960 using a Scotty Fenn/Chassis Research FL44 model and “shattered track records throughout the East Coast on its first three outings. On Sept. 23, 1961, driver Earl Howard broke 180 mph at an 8.91 e.t. at York U.S. 30 Dragway. Afterward Drag News proclaimed it to be the world’s fastest Chevy.
“In 1964, owner Duane Reynolds moved out west to Seattle, and it was raced at Arlington, Puyallup, and many other West Coast dragstrips. Sometime around 1965, the frame had been extended from the front spring perch some 48 inches. In this configuration, several drag papers stated times in the 8.70s and runs over 190 as late as 1967, which is around when it last ran.”
(Above) The Jones-Malliard-Chrisman rear-engine sidewinder was a terror in 1959. (Below) Jack Chrisman, far lane, took A/Dragster class honors with the car at the 1959 Nationals, defeating Don Hampton in Kenny Lindley’s Miss Fire III in the final.
The Mag-Winder never ran as good as it looked.
One of the wildest early rear-engine dragsters was the Chuck Jones and Joe Malliard-Chrisman sidewinder, which did some real damage in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The car was actually a hand-me-down from Paul Nicolini, who had built the car in 1957 with his father-in-law, Harry Duncan, a wealthy Southern California contractor. After enough bent axles, broken chain drives, and aborted runs, in 1959, he sold the car to Jones, who was well-known in drag racing circles as a fuel coupe racer at Santa Ana and managing editor for Drag News.
Jones brought Malliard, who owned a machine shop in Long Beach, into the picture along with third partner Jack Reed. Jack Chrisman, a well-respected wheelman whose best days still lay ahead, was tapped to drive the car, having earlier wheeled some rear-engine cars.
With a supercharged Chrysler for power, the car won almost from its inception and even set the NHRA national record at 9.11 in May 1959. A second version was built, and Chrisman took A/Dragster class honors and nearly won the 1959 Nationals in Detroit.
Kent Fuller was hired to build a third version, lighter and longer. They commissioned Fuller to build the car using magnesium tubing instead of chrome moly and covered with a full streamlined body (made of both magnesium and aluminum by Wayne Ewing), leading to the car's name, the Mag-Winder. The car weighed just more than 1,400 pounds race-ready. It debuted in late 1960 and ran fast but never was as successful as its predecessors. The car was campaigned infrequently; Chrisman, meanwhile, had moved on to Howard Johansen's camp and the Howard Cam Twin Bears gas dragster, with which he won the inaugural Winternationals in 1961.
Paul Shapiro lit the M&Hs in the Cohen-Shapiro-Sonnenblick-O’Brien Israeli Rocket at Miami’s Masters Field, a Marines airfield used for mid-1960s drags. This was an early shot, with the blown Olds for power. Steering was rack-and-pinion with aluminum front wheels from a Zundap motor scooter. (Bill Bussart photo)
Shapiro left on Bob Hamilton’s Southern Pride AA/D at NHRA's Division 2 WCS event at Masters Field (note future NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch in middle). Hamilton’s former Garlits Swamp Rat V took the Top Eliminator win. The Rocket had bests of 8.46 at 185.50 in 1965 and won many Top Eliminator titles in Florida during the mid-1960s. (Bill Bussart photo)
Jim Hill, one of the Insider’s great sources of Southeast drag racing knowledge, passed along information about another great early rear-engine car, this one a Top Gasser from the mid-1960s known as the Israeli Rocket (long before Funny Car driver Leroy Goldstein had the nickname). According to Hill, the car recorded legitimate numbers (on certified Chrondek timers) of 8.46 at 185.50 mph, which were pretty good for 1964-65.
The diverse team consisted of driver Paul Shapiro, engine builder and tuner Howard Cohen, and partners Mike Sonnenblick and Tom O'Brien. According to Hill, the car's cowl carried a green shamrock and a Star of David, and this diverse group humorously called itself "Three Jews and an Irishman." The group had previously raced together, running a blown Olds-powered dragster and later the same Olds engine in an A/Roadster.
“The car was very soundly engineered and had many unique features not found on dragsters of the day,” Hill noted. “It was entirely homebuilt and boasted front rack-and-pinion steering (with the steer ratio slowed way down, for control), lightweight aluminum disc front wheels from a Zundap motor scooter, and loads of aircraft technology, components, and fasteners. As for handling, the car always went like it was on rails and never exhibited any of the spooky stuff that cursed early back-engine attempts.”
According to Hill, Shapiro, a certified aircraft weldor, assembled the chassis from 4130 chromoly and gas-welded the components. Cohen had degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering from the University of Miami and built and tuned the big-inch Dodge. Shapiro and Sonnenblick both worked in the aviation maintenance industry at MIA. O'Brien was an elevator technician with a local Miami company. All four were dedicated drag racers, albeit, part-time, weekends-only types.
“As all had successful businesses or careers, they were unable to travel outside the Southeast, so the car was never actually tested at the NHRA national level,” Hill added. “It did challenge for and take the Standard 1320 Drag News Top Gas No. 6 spot in January 1965. Shapiro defeated Cleveland, Ohio's Dick Vest at Fort Myers, Fla.'s Buckingham Drag Strip to take the No. 6 spot. They later defended the 6 spot against Lanier Dickerson in the Tampa-based Blue Mist. In 1965, they ran off a string of six Top Eliminator wins in a row at Palm Beach Int'l Raceway, but business and work commitments prevented their venturing much outside their Florida area.”
The team's initial choice of power was Oldsmobile, topped by a chain-driven 6-71 blower and four-hole Hilborn injector, which was later replaced by a 480-cid Dodge B wedge engine that used a unique fuel-injection system made by Dayton, Ohio's Dr. Pete Orner. It was with this combination that it recorded its best numbers. The wedge Dodge carried ported heads obtained from the Ramchargers by Cohen's Tampa friend, a fellow by the name of Don Garlits, who had knowledge of these engines, having run one in Top Gas at the 1962-63 NHRA Nationals, before NHRA’s fuel ban was lifted in 1964.
According to Hill, Cohen still lives in the Miami area, and O'Brien and Sonnenblick survive. Shapiro passed away several years ago. After a search for authentic parts, the car was reassembled and is now on display at Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla.
Another of my great historic sources, Bret Kepner, weighed in with his pick for the first “modern” rear-engine car, (“whatever THAT means!”), citing Bob Lindwall’s Chicago-based Re-Entry car, which Wayne Hill drove. “It was, without argument, the first rear-engined Top Fuel car over 200 mph, having performed the feat at multiple tracks in 1966, including its 201.34 mph crash at Indy,” he stated.
To bolster his claim, Kepner pointed out that the car used a three-point roll bar, a spaced-tubing frame design, and drag-link steering. “Without its body panels, the car would not look too different than the 1969-1970 versions of Widner, Foster, Ong, Schacker, or Garlits.” he asserted.
At right is a great video of the car losing to Noel Mauer in the Mauer & Willis Iowa dragster in the second round of the 1966 World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova. According to Kepner, Hill had already qualified at 200.44 and ran 202.24 to defeat Doc Halladay in the Kinn, Manke & Halladay rig in the opening round.
The rear-engine transition story would not be complete without more information on Bernie Schacker, who, as mentioned last week, had one of the earliest rear-engine Top Fuelers. Thanks to the ever-faithful Insider Nation, and Alex Ardizzone in particular, I was able to finally talk to Schacker a few days ago.
Schacker, an electrician in his mid-30s with four kids at the time, probably seems an unlikely candidate to make history, but I have confirmed that he indeed did make the first six-second clocking in a rear-engine dragster in mid-1970 and that he had been campaigning his car all that season, well before Garlits’ much-publicized accident with his front-engine car.
Schacker, who began tinkering with cars after getting out of the Navy, is a self-taught hot rodder who built his own race cars, including the historic rear-engine car. He had been competing in Top Fuel since the mid-1960s with front-engine cars and, despite their bad reputation, “didn’t see any reason why a rear-engined car wouldn’t work, and it certainly would be safer,” he said. To prove it to himself and others, he converted his final front-engine car to a rear-engine design by welding additional tubing behind the roll cage and moving the engine from his lap to behind his head. He used the exact drivetrain from the front-engine car, which is why the engine was so close to the rear tires, and the same steering ratio as the slingshot.
“People thought [rear-engine] cars were hard to drive because the driver wasn’t oriented to the attitude of the car and didn’t know when the car was out of shape," he said. "The first time I drove mine, at New York National [Speedway] during the week, I clipped a piston and got oil under the tires, but I knew exactly where I was. I was really happy to debunk that theory.”
This was all taking place at about the same time that Woody Gilmore debuted his ill-fated first rear-engine car, and when Pat Foster stacked up Gilmore’s car on one of its first runs, folks scoffed at Schacker’s efforts, too.
“My fellow racers thought I was nuts at first; they were writing my obituary,” he recalled with a laugh. “But everyone was interested in it because it was so different. Back then, the front-engined cars all pretty much looked the same.”
Schacker’s car also was outfitted with a rear wing from the outset, which also was a first.
Later that year, Schacker sold the car to Red Lang, of Dead End Kids fame, and continued to drive for the team through the 1971 U.S. Nationals, where they qualified but were unable to make eliminations due to engine damage.
Schacker was in and out of racing for more than a decade, dabbling here and there, but made a big splash in the late 1980s with a streamlined Top Alcohol Dragster that, naturally, he built himself with partner Rod Abrams. Inspired by the Top Fuel streamliners of Garlits, Gary Ormsby, and others, Schacker designed and built his car – including the body -- with an eye toward their slippery designs but with a shorter wheelbase of about 220 inches and some Funny Car ideas.
“It had a torsion-bar front suspension that I built, and the car handled real nice – it was smooth as glass at the top end -- but we were breaking a lot of motors, so we never really found out what it could do,” he lamented. “We wanted to go to A/Fuel, but the car was too heavy, so we parked it.”
Looking back over these past few columns, it’s clear that it was a long road to the success and acceptance of the rear-engine dragster as a viable and reliable design and that a lot of racers had a hand in bringing Top Fuel to its current state. Remember them the next time you’re sitting in the stands watching the cars practically defy the laws of physics. I’ll see you next week.
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.