The last week provided a double shock of loss, with the passing of Funny Car barrier breaker Chuck Etchells Wednesday, July 6, and the loss of drag racing icon Art Chrisman the following Tuesday. The loss of Etchells was unexpected, a sudden death at age 61, and although many of those close to Chrisman knew that his passing was imminent – he had battled cancer for quite some time – it was no less shocking that he was gone at age 86 when the news arrived.
Etchells engraved his name in the NHRA history books on that magical weekend in Topeka in 1993 when both the four-second and 300-mph Funny Car barriers were felled – the former by Etchells, the latter by Jim Epler – and although Chrisman's headlines were written in a time before mass media and televised drag racing, it’s impossible to overstate his place in the sport’s history, so I’ll talk about him first, borrowing generously from an article I wrote about him 15 years ago when he was voted No. 29 on the list of Top 50 Drivers of NHRA’s first 50 years, ahead of guys like Chris Karamesines, Dick LaHaie, and many others.
The criteria for that list was based not solely on behind-the-wheel accomplishments but on historical, mechanical, and promotional legacy, which is why Chrisman was the perfect fit. It’s hard for fans of today to truly understand how different things were in that time. I think we’re all aware that back then racers did it almost all themselves, but I think even I still have a hard time understanding what that means and reconciling it to today’s army of specialists.
Hot rodding's earliest heroes didn't get a new race car every year, nor did they rely on professional chassis builders to create their racing machinery or fabrications specialists to create the bodywork. These heroes never depended on air-gun artists to paint their machines or stood back and watched hired wrenches build and tune their engines before hopping into their chariots. More often than not, these ancestors of acceleration did it all themselves, wiping their dirty hands clean before climbing into the cockpit to try out their handiwork, and few better exemplified this standard than Chrisman.
Chrisman's family moved from Arkansas to Compton, Calif., during World War II and owned an automobile-repair shop, Chrisman & Sons Garage, where Chrisman quickly learned about cars and developed an interest in racing.
“I built my first hot rod, a ’32 Ford, right after World War II when I was 16,” Chrisman told NHRA National Dragster in an interview several years ago. “I then built a custom ’36 Ford sedan, which was the first car I raced at Santa Ana and El Mirage.”
Chrisman and his brother, Lloyd, began racing the Ford four-door sedan on the Southern California dry-lake beds. That was followed by a '34 Ford that hit a stout 140-mph clip and a tube-frame, chopped and channeled '30 Ford coupe. Chrisman became one of five charter members of the Bonneville 200-mph Club after driving Chet Herbert's Beast streamliner past the double-century mark (and eventually up to 235 mph) in 1952. The next year, the Chrismans' homebuilt coupe reached near-200-mph speeds.
Racing was clearly in the family's blood. Chrisman's uncle, the late Jack Chrisman, won Top Eliminator titles at the first Winternationals and at the 1962 U.S. Nationals. In 1964, Jack was the first driver to wheel a blown and injected nitro-burning Funny Car. Jack's son, Steve, was a competitive alcohol and nitro Funny Car racer in the 1980s.
Art Chrisman, in his famed #25 dragster, was the first drag racer to exceed 140 and 180 mph and the first winner at the Bakersfield U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships in 1959. Chrisman was partners with Leroy Neumeyer on the #25 car. When Neumeyer was drafted to fight in the Korean War, Chrisman began to race the machine, which would become one of the most celebrated cars in drag racing history.
"It was probably built in the early 1930s by some backyard mechanic," Chrisman reflected in 1991, "but I have no idea who that was. This was not a factory car, just some machine a guy put together. I had seen it around town, and because it was so unusual, it caught my eye. [Neumeyer] traded his motorcycle for the car. We ran it at the dry lakes in the early '50s, and in 1953, we took it to the drag races, the first time at Santa Ana. We just wanted to see if it would go straight.
"Some months earlier, I had stretched it from its original 90-inch wheelbase to 110 inches, set the driver back farther in the car, and threw a coat of black primer on it. We ended up taking it apart that day and didn't run it. But the next time out, same track, same year, we had the copper paint job on it, the big #25 on the driver's side of the body, and a Chrysler under the hood. That's when we went 140."
The familiar #25 cemented its place in the history books as the first car to make a pass at NHRA's first national event, the 1955 Nationals in Great Bend, Kan. Chrisman took part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony, then made the opening lap of the race.
“It was [NHRA founder] Wally Parks’ idea for us to make the first run,” said Chrisman. “When I made that pass, I had no idea of what we were starting with NHRA’s first national event, but I did see the handwriting on the wall when I got to look at the slingshot dragsters of [eventual event winner] Calvin Rice and Mickey Thompson. We had plenty of power with our Chrysler engine, but we couldn’t take advantage of it because our car would just smoke the tires.”
In 1958, as #25 was beginning to show its age and a new breed of dragster, the slingshot, was beginning to make its mark, the Chrismans, along with Frank Cannon, built their famed Hustler I dragster. Chrisman recalled that he first attempted to modify #25 into a slingshot design, “but it would’ve looked so weird that we just decided to build a new car from the ground up,” he said.
Built at the Chrisman garage, the new entry won the Best Engineered Car award at the 1958 Nationals in Oklahoma City and was featured on the January 1959 cover of Hot Rod magazine.
The car, powered by a blown 392-cid Chrysler engine stroked out to 454 inches, became the first drag racer to crack the 180-mph mark with a 181.81-mph run on the back straight of Southern California’s Riverside Raceway in February 1959, just a month before the historic first March Meet, known then as the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships.
"We ran a 180 that day and two 179s, so we knew we had a runner," he said. "That run gave us a lot of confidence going into the first Bakersfield race, which was run in March. We knew that all the big guys from California would be there, as well as Don Garlits and some of the Eastern racers. We wanted to show them we were for real with that 180."
Chrisman won that historic first Smokers Meet, running as quick as 8.70 at 179.70 mph and trailering some of the best fuelers in the sport. He capped the event with a victory over Tony Waters in the Waters & Shugrue roadster in a near-pitch-black final.
Drag racing biographers Mickey Bryant and Todd Hutcheson sent me this wonderful Howard Hagen print that shows that famous 1959 March Meet final round.
Chrisman ran that car through the end of the 1962 season, scoring Top Fuel runner-ups at the 1960 and 1961 Bakersfield races, then went to work through 1972 for Ford Motor Co.'s Autolite Spark Plug Division, which put an end to his driving career but not his association with motorsports.
The restored #25 made the opening pass at the 25th annual U.S. Nationals in 1979.
“I not only got to work with Connie Kalitta, Don Prudhomme, and my uncle Jack when they received their new Ford SOHC 427s, but I also spent every February in Daytona [Fla.] and every May in Indianapolis,” he recalled. “I also worked with racers such as Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney, and A.J. Foyt. Some of our projects at the Indy 500 included working with the Ford pushrod small-block engine that was based on the 289-cid engine and the dual overhead cam engine, which won a lot of races there.”
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the U.S. Nationals, Chrisman worked with his son Mike and Steve Davis to restore #25 and duplicate his first pass at the inaugural event to begin the 1979 race. The ritual was repeated again at the 50th U.S. Nationals in 2004.
Former NHRA Vice President and Competition Director Steve Gibbs was incredibly close to Chrisman, especially in his final years.
“We all have our drag racing heroes,” said Gibbs, who also shared some of his thoughts in the video at right, during Chrisman’s installation into the SEMA Hall of Fame. “Some from their racing accomplishments and mechanical skills, others from their personal conduct, or character. When one person has all those traits and is later to become a close personal friend is a reward that few experience. Art became like the older brother I never had. He was a racer’s racer and a man’s man. He was married to his wife, Dorothy, for 62 years, which should also tell you a lot about him.
Chrisman, left, Steve Gibbs, right, and Ron Capps at the NHRA museum in 2014, in front of the exhibit that honors the start of our sport and #25.
“The strength he showed during his dying days was unbelievable. Never once did I hear him complain or feel sorry for himself. ‘I’m fine’ was his response to questions about his situation, when we all knew it wasn’t. I can only hope I have a tenth of his strength and dignity when my time comes. The reality is that I'm at an age when many of my friends are dying. It's a cruel reality, and each loss hurts. Losing Art Chrisman is different; it's life-changing. What started out as a young kid idolizing a big-name racer turned into a very close personal friendship. When we left Art's house on Monday night, I knew it was the last time I would be with him, and it left a huge hole in my heart. But it was his time to go, and there was honestly a sense of relief in knowing he would soon be free from a long and courageous fight.
"It's a shame that some of the younger folks do not have full knowledge of what Art contributed to the world of drag racing and hot rodding. Many of us do know, and he was simply the best. I'm thankful for his friendship and take comfort in knowing that he felt the same. Vaya con Dios mi amigo.”
Legendary race car builder Tom Hanna echoed Gibbs’ sentiment, calling Chrisman “the last of a breed of most extraordinary men. If there be a hereafter, Art Chrisman’s place was well earned.”
Fans like Insider regular William McLauchlan also expressed their appreciation of Chrisman
“Art Chrisman was before my time,” he wrote. “His racing career ended before I ever opened a Hot Rod magazine or attended a drag race. When I did start reading National Dragster’s event coverage I always wondered why they had a photo of the Autolite spark plug guy – who was this guy? He wasn’t racing. Well, I would find out. In old Hot Rod magazines I saw his cars were fast and first class in preparation. In the Rodder’s Journal the cars he built were incredible. Having breakfast with Steve Gibbs one morning he told me Art was his hero. And then I went to Bakersfield and thought the Hustler was the loudest car there (sorry Mike Kuhl and others). Walking through the pits I saw Art standing by himself next to his car. I decided to take a chance and go talk to him. I told him his car was loud, which he said it always was even when they raced, and told him I liked the street rods he built. He told I should come by some Wednesday night but to be sure to bring food. I was really taken back by his openness and character. This guy was the real deal. If someone wanted to know how to be in life, be like Art.”
A memorial and celebration of life for Chrisman will take place Saturday, Aug. 27, from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California.
In a fine career that included 13 NHRA national event wins – from his first, a wild finish in Englishtown that ended with opponent Johnny West unconscious after a guardwall slam, to the last, a triumph at the 1998 World Finals – Etchells left his mark on the Funny Car class as a fierce competitor, superb marketer, and constant foil for John Force.
Four of Etchells’ wins came after vanquishing Force at the height of his mid-1990s power in final rounds, but nine of Etchells’ 13 runner-ups came at the hands of the sport’s most feared flopper pilot. Force respected Etchells as he respected and fought everyone who strove to take away his hard-earned crown, including Al Hofmann, Whit Bazemore, and more. In the 55 races that spanned the 1993-95 seasons, one or both of them were in 33 of those finals, and Etchells finished in the top five seven straight seasons, from 1992 through 1998, with a career-high finish of No. 2 behind Force in 1993.
And although Force beat Etchells way more often than Etchells ever beat Force, few – especially Force –will ever forget the biggest and grandest time that Etchells beat him, in the race to break into the four-second zone.
Funny Cars had begun knocking on the four-second door the previous season, when Cruz Pedregon steamed to a 5.07 in the McDonald’s Pontiac at the NHRA Keystone Nationals. The following spring, Force hammered out a 5.04 in Houston, followed by a 5.01 in Englishtown. There seemed to be little doubt in anyone’s mind – especially, apparently, Force’s – that he would be the one to do the barrier breaking.
Etchells had other ideas. Force had already locked up the season championship, so Etchells and crew chief Tim Richards set their sights on the first four. The stage was set for history at Heartland Park Topeka in early October.
“We had run a 5.06, 292.20 at Maple Grove and felt that coming into this race we could do it,” Etchells told National Dragster. “I ran a 5.04 blowing a blower at 1,200 feet [in Englishtown] in July, so we've had the power for some time. What we needed were the conditions. As soon as we arrived here, I got the feeling that we had a shot at it. As soon as we got out of the truck, we could tell that the air was good, and our first run told us that the track was smooth and in excellent shape. Inside, I felt that if Force didn't step up dramatically, we could get it."
Not long after Castrol's John Howell, second from right, and John Force announced a $25,000 bounty for the first four-second Funny Car run, Etchells, second from left, swooped in and stole Force's prize.
No one did well in the first qualifying session in Topeka, but with the cool evening session approaching, a special announcement was made on the starting line. Castrol GTX Motorsports Manager John Howell announced that his company would present $25,000 to the four-second barrier breaker. Force – sponsored then, of course, by Castrol – apparently got caught up in the excitement of the moment and announced to the crowd that he'd pay half of that $25,000, probably figuring he would be writing a check to himself.
Force's Olds was in the second pair (this was before qualifying was run as it is today, with the quickest drivers from the first session running last in the second session) and Etchells in the sixth. Force had run 5.08 to top the first session, so it was a better than good bet he was going to crash through the barrier. Then came an unexpected break for Etchells … or should I say “brake”? During the burnout, Force’s Castrol Olds broke the left front-brake caliper, and crew chief Austin Coil had to shut him off. "The caliper was locking up the wheel," said Coil. "John could feel the shudder when he used the brakes after the burnout. When he released the brakes, the car wouldn't roll."
Four pairs later, Etchells, who had run 5.16 in the first session, promptly put a 4.987 at 294.31 mph on the scoreboard.
"Well," Force said, "I picked a great time to shoot my big mouth off. Etchells and his crew are good guys, and they did it fair and square. Our team has had a lot of things go our way this year, so I guess it was someone else's turn to have their moment."
Etchells' moment was long in coming. He had begun attending drag races at Connecticut Dragway in 1970 at age 16 and soon began racing his own ’67 Dodge R/T, eventually getting it to run in the high 10s. Then he made the huge leap in 1978 by purchasing a Chevy Monza Funny Car from Bruce Larson. With brother Gary and pals Pete Hyslop and Bill Hatzell, he went nitro racing. He called the car Future Force, which he certainly hoped to be, though there were certainly few guarantees at the time.
“We knew nothing about nitro engines,” he admitted, “but Bruce spent hours on the phone with us, trying to get us dialed in. I don’t know how he managed to put up with all that, but he did.”
Etchells earned his license with a respectable 6.60 at 220 mph and a few years later traded the Monza shell for a Datsun body before upgrading to his first car, a Murf McKinney-built Pontiac Trans Am, in 1984.
“We were still blowing up a lot of stuff back then,” said Etchells, "and upon the suggestion of [Englishtown’s] Vinnie Napp, I called Paul Smith and his son Mike for some help, which turned out to be a good idea.”
In 1990, Etchells finally won his first NHRA national event at the Summernationals and also won the IHRA Funny Car championship. A year later, Etchells was forced to park the car until his agent, Bill Griffith, came up with sponsorship help from Nobody Beats The Wiz home entertainment centers, which allowed Etchells to hire crew chief Maynard Yingst, who helped tune Etchells to three victories and a fifth-place finish in the 1992 standings. Tragically, Yingst suffered a fatal brain aneurysm on the final day of qualifying at the Houston event in 1993.
While attending services for Yingst in Linglestown, Pa., Etchells ran into Tim and Kim Richards, who were between jobs. “We were snowed in at the local Holiday Inn,” said Etchells, “and we got together in one of the rooms and managed to put together a deal for the rest of the year.”
Etchells went on to record two wins and a career-best second-place finish that year, capping it of course with the four-second run. Etchells finished in the top five five more times through 1998 but decided at the end of that year to replace himself as the driver with Bazemore, who brought extra money to the team with backing from Turtle Wax for the next two seasons. In 2001, Etchells formed a two-car team, driving one of the cars himself and hiring Jim Epler to drive the other. Lack of sponsorship backing forced Etchells to retire for good near the end of the season.
Art Chrisman and Chuck Etchells. Two guys on almost opposite ends of the drag racing history timeline but joined by their love of competition and their place in all our hearts.
I hope you all had a safe and sane Fourth of July and are ready to dive into the teeth of summer. I'll be in Chicago this weekend for the K&N Filters Route 66 NHRA Nationals at fabulous Route 66 Raceway.
While I'm spectating and working on The Mother Road, here's the mother lode of Fan Fotos, part two of Insider reader Robert Nielsen’s Fan Fotos submission, a compilation of photos, facts, and opinions. Enjoy!
When you walk through the pits at the California Hot Rod Reunion, you will run across lots of early vintage race cars, like this Speed Sport roadster powered by a mid-1950s Chrysler Firepower hemi with eight two-barrel Stromberg carburetors. This car clearly demonstrates, as do many other cars from this period, that rear-engine (again I must say mid-engine) cars were not just a recent invention. (I must also confess I digitally altered the top photo. There were a number of greasy rags under the left rear wheel. I did not want to upset anyone by messing with this car in any way, so I left them there along with the one on the top of the right rear wheel.)
The Master & Richter Special Top Fuel dragster, circa 1963, powered by a 392-cubic-inch Chrysler hemi in the pits at the California Hot Rod Reunion. The Kent Fuller chassis has a wheelbase of only 112 inches. That is certainly small when compared with today’s 300-inch-wheelbase Top Fuel cars. In this configuration, it was capable of running high-seven-second e.t.s at close to 200 mph in 1963.
In the foreground is the BankAmeriCar car of Don Ewald. The story is that Don financed this car using his Bank of America credit card to build it. When Kenny Youngblood was doing the original lettering on the car, Don told him this. Youngblood thought BankAmeriCar would be a good name for it and painted that on the cowl in front of the driver.
The car next to it is Don Ewald’s MasterCar. I assume once Don maxed out the BankAmericard, he applied for a MasterCard and built this dragster. Both have been restored to perfection! Not sure about who the third car in this picture belongs to.
The pits at the California Hot Rod Reunion are always loaded with a huge number of Cacklefest cars. I think it is the BankAmeriCar car that was the emphasis for the advent of the Cacklefest car. Most of these Cacklefest cars are 1950s and 1960s front-engine nitro cars restored to their splendid former greatest. Each year, more and more restored Cackle cars show up in the CHRR pits.
OK, while I said the 1972 front-engine dragster of Danny Ongais is my all-time favorite dragster, your hero and mine, "TV Tommy" Ivo’s first supercharged Barnstormer dragster is an extremely close second. I remember very vividly seeing this car run on the SoCal dragstrips in the early 1960s and how beautiful it looked, in addition to running great numbers.
You have to love the “weed burner” headers. These headers came by their name honestly since the exhaust from them would occasionally set dry brush near the edge of the track on fire. This was a moderately frequent occurrence at San Fernando Raceway.
Part of the thing making this deal so great is Ivo himself. He was an extraordinary showman and self-promoter. He loved the spotlight and still does, every part of it. The story has been told a thousand times about when he match raced a jet-powered dragster and stuck a hot dog on top of his helmet to be roasted when the jet flew by. Showmanship at its best! But do not dare mention his match race against a Turbonique-powered go-kart driven by “Captain Jack” McClure.
I shot this photo early Sunday morning in the 2015 California Hot Rod Reunion pits before virtually anyone was up and about. The car has been immaculately re-created by Ron Johnson in great detail. I must have shot about 50 photos of this car, drooling all the time – but being careful not to drool on the car itself. I was tempted to climb in the driver’s seat but resisted doing so purely out of respect for this car. I suspect the reason for shooting as many pictures as I did was that subconsciously I was waiting for Ron Johnson or someone else to show up so I could ask them if I could try it on for size. No luck, though, as no one ever appeared while I was there.
The re-creation of the Beebe & Mulligan Top Fuel dragster. Yet another of the Cackle cars that is consistently at every one of the California Hot Rod Reunions. Once again, the re-creation of this car is immensely accurate.
The “Outer Limits” A/Factory Experimental altered-wheelbase Dodge owned and driven by Joel Miner. Here he is just starting to launch off the starting line at the 2015 California Hot Rod Reunion. I really needed to be a little farther downtrack as his normal starting-line wheelstands are 3 to 4 feet high, but I did not want to get in the way of the professional photographers!
Glenn Gibbons' altered-wheelbase A/Factory Experimental Pouncing Poncho Pontiac leaving the 2015 California Hot Rod Reunion starting line with a big wheelstand!
While walking around the California Hot Rod Reunion pits, you can encounter a large variety of different types of vehicles. Here is someone’s personal transportation to get around in the pits. Hot rod ingenuity at its finest. It is parked next to the Voodoo Child A/Fuel Altered. Although I might question its stability during cornering. But then drag racers generally are not concerned with turning right or left. As the saying goes, “If you can turn right or left, you are not going fast enough!”
The 1958 B/Gas Dragster of Warren, Coburn & Crowe. This car was on display in the California Hot Rod Reunion Nitro Alumni Hospitality area. The display plaque on the front of the car says it is powered by a 459-cubic-inch hemi. Again, yet another example of an early short-wheelbase rear-engine dragster. While I never saw this car actually run, I was a huge fan of the Warren, Coburn & Miller Ridge Route Terrors cars that followed this one.
OK, readers, that's a wrap on the Nielsen Files. Some great stuff and a real testament to the great and individual things that catch our eyes and make them water, even without nitro. If you have some images and stories to share, let's have them. You can have your own memories, but it doesn't mean you shouldn't share them with the rest of us diehards!
If you’ve been around this column for any length of time, you know there’s no measuring the depth of love and respect I have for followers of this weekly cornucopia of drag racing stream of consciousness. And you probably also know there are a dozen or more guys upon whom I can count for regular input and feedback on the week’s musings, guys like Cliff Morgan, “Nitro Jon” Hoffman, Mark “Hog Wild” Elms, Mark Watkins, and Gary Crumrine, who are my brothers from another mother when it comes to this stuff.
Then there’s Robert Nielsen, who from the early days of this column has been a frequent contributor, foil, friend, instigator, ally, and conscience. Equal parts passionate and obstinate, he’s just as likely to salute a column as he is ready and eager to take me to task for a statement or opinion. If I say Roland Leong is Hawaii’s greatest drag racing export, he counters with Danny Ongais. If I say the Corvette was America’s sports car, he sides with the Shelby Cobra. If I say a dragster is rear-engined, he insists it’s more properly a mid-engined car. Man, do I love this guy.
Way back in February 2010, Nielsen was one of the first to accept my challenge to readers to submit their personal photos, and he responded with a wonderful collection of doorslammers from NorCal, SoCal, and Arizona. Not only did he supply the photos, but he also provided great detailed information about the subjects. You can find that submission here
, and, guess what race fans, he’s back for more, responding to my own collection of photographic flotsam with another batch of pics that’s split between old and new photos of vintage drag iron, with a history lesson or two thrown in for good measure. He sent more than two dozen, which I’ll break into two parts.
Linda “Miss Hurst Golden Shifter” riding on the back of an Oldsmobile at the 1970 NHRA Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway. I was moderately surprised when I saw this because one of the NHRA’s mottos is “Dedicated to Safety.” So I ask you, how safe is it to ride on a platform on the back of a car in high-heel shoes without any safety constraints?
The Candies & Hughes 'Cuda out ahead of the Pisano & Matsubara Camaro at the 1970 NHRA Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway. An instant later, Sush Matsubara’s Camaro made a hard right turn into the Armco barrier and crashed heavily. Parts of the Camaro broke off and headed downtrack, where Les Lovett was trying to escape this debris. Unfortunately, he was not quick enough as a shock absorber hit him in the ankle and broke it. One of the many perils of being a trackside photographer!
The 1972 front-engine dragster of Danny Ongais. The photo was taken from the stands at the 1972 NHRA Winternationals in Pomona. This is at a time when a lot of the Top Fuel dragsters were switching to the rear-engine cars (and it pains me to say rear-engine since they are really mid-engine cars as we have discussed), but Ongais is attempting to buck this trend. The car has to be one of my all-time favorite dragsters. Not only is the car a beautiful work of art, but it is also owned and driven by Ongais. Ongais is probably one of the best race car drivers of all time. He excelled at driving Top Fuel cars, Funny Cars, Indy cars, and Formula 1 cars. You have to love the wing mounted above the engine to try to overcome some of the advantages the rear-engine cars had.
The fuel-injected Boss 302 Ford Pinto of Steve Woods at Lions Drag Strip circa February 1972. Since the car has a C/Gas designation on the window, it has to be a Sunday race because Lions only ran E.T. Brackets on Saturday, but on Sunday you could run for a class trophy in the morning and then E.T. Brackets in the afternoon. Sometime after this, it changed so you could opt to run E.T. Brackets in both the morning and afternoon.
“Frantic Freddy” Badberg’s fuel-injected A/Street Roadster in the staging lanes at Lions Drag Strip, circa September 1972. Badberg was one of the regular racers who frequented Lions.
I am definitely an old-school drag racer. That also makes me a nostalgia drag racing fan to the nth degree. For a number of years, Larry Knapp, my longtime friend and fellow racer, had been trying to get me to come out to the California Hot Rod Reunions in Bakersfield. I had managed to resist this since I was afraid once I did, I would be bitten by the drag race bug once again. In October 2013, I did go to the CHRR since I could not stand Larry’s constant bugging to come out and see his car run again. So far, I have managed to resist the temptation to build another car, but that is only because of my wife. She says she wants me around for a long time and is afraid I would not be if I started racing again. It is extremely difficult to put up a defense against that sort of argument. As a result, I have had to be content (for the time being anyway) with getting my drag racing fix through my friends and their race cars. But this is proving to be a very difficult urge to resist any longer.
Larry Knapp’s 1966 Ford Mustang at the 2013 California Hot Rod Reunion. This was one of the first Mustangs built by Holman and Moody, Long Beach, Calif., after they were commissioned to do so by Ford Motor Company. It was built specifically to run in the A/Factory Experimental class. Larry now occasionally travels from his home in SoCal to run in various Nostalgia A/FX races across the country. His car is powered by an Earl Wade-built 472-cubic-inch Ford single overhead cam (SOHC) engine backed up by a four-speed Lenco transmission. Larry has been running this same car for almost 50 years now!
In the staging lanes at the 2013 California Hot Rod Reunion with the Roger Lindamood Color Me Gone tribute car. This car was built to run in the Nostalgia/Super Stock class, but since this class is not run at the CHRR, he is running in the A/Factory Experimental class.
This is a Sox & Martin 1964 Mercury Comet tribute car built and run by Ken Godsey at the 2013 California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield. It is powered by a 427-cubic-inch Ford FE, with two four-barrel carburetors and a “you-shift-’em” four-speed Ford Top Loader manual transmission. Ken lives in the Denver area and makes the trek down to Bakersfield for the CHRR every year. In addition to this car, Ken recently acquired the original Kenz & Leslie 1966 Mercury Comet Funny Car. The K&L Comet was one of the flip-top Funny Cars along with those of “Dyno Don” Nicholson and Jack Chrisman. Ken is in the process of restoring the K&L Comet. Hopefully this restoration will be completed soon and be at the 2016 CHRR along with his 1964 S&M Comet.
A typical wheels-up launch for many of the A/Factory Experimental cars running at the California Hot Rod Reunion. This is Dennis King’s 1967 Ford Fairlane. It has a 472-cubic-inch 945-horsepower Ford FE engine with a Glide transmission. This car ran 8.83 and 150.60 at the 2014 CHRR. Dennis is another drag racer who has been around for a LONG time. In 1984, Dennis campaigned an A/Altered he called Asian Flew. That car won Competition eliminator at the NHRA Gatornationals with driver Danny Townsend. Lettered on the back of both of these cars are the initials TPTR – which means Too Pretty To Race. And both of these cars live up to that!
Another A/Factory Experimental car at the 2014 California Hot Rod Reunion was the 1961 Ford Starliner belonging to Dave Franklin. He runs a 600-plus-cubic-inch Ford 385 engine in Old Yeller. This is another car that has seen the dragstrip virtually from the day it left the showroom floor. Dave is also the president of American Nostalgia West Drag Racing and organizes most of the ANWDR races, including the CHRR A/FX race.
Just a little 1956 Nash Metropolitan with a huge 500-cubic-inch supercharged big-block Chevrolet engine owned by Bryan Thatcher. This car runs at the California Hot Rod Reunion in the A/Gas class. With this extremely short wheelbase and the power the engine makes, I think you need to have a screw loose to want to drive a short-wheelbase car like this one. It probably is going to go anywhere it wants to, which is most likely not in a straight line. (Do you happen to know anyone who is crazy enough to have driven a similar car?)
I also love altereds. All kinds of altereds! This gorgeous little roadster is another of the many cars frequenting the California Hot Rod Reunion. I do not know much about the car other than it is simply as gorgeous as they come!
Great stuff, Robert. Stay tuned for Part 2 next week, fans!
Another month in the books, and another four cars have been revealed in the Top 20 Funny Car fan vote, with another coming Saturday, which will bring us up to No. 12.
Here’s what has been revealed so far:
14. Ed McCulloch Revellution Demon
15. Danny Ongais/Mickey Thompson Mustang
16. Kenny Bernstein Bud King Tempo
17. Don Prudhomme Pepsi Challenger
18. Jim White/Hawaiian Punch Dodge
19. Gene Snow Rambunctious Challenger
20. Jack Chrisman Comet
We discussed Nos. 18 through 20 when they were unveiled, but I got some frowny faces about Prudhomme’s Pepsi Challenger – famed for its otherworldly 5.63 blast at Indy 1982 and the barrier-breaking 250-mph pass earlier that year at the Cajun Nationals – ending up No. 17. As you can see in the chart below, the Insider Nation actually had the car ranked much lower (No. 19).
Opined Eric Widmer, “Prudhomme's 5.63 was about two-tenths quicker than the quickest Funny Cars of the time. It was akin to John Mulligan's 6.43 when the quickest of the other fuelers was 6.73 at the time in, where else?, Indy. In my opinion, it would make ‘the Snake’ head and shoulders above everyone else at that moment in time.”
I wrote a pretty in-depth column about that incredible 1982 U.S. Nationals event -- including the “nitrous or not” controversy -- that you can find here
. I interviewed many of the major players, including Prudhomme, Dale Armstrong, Billy Meyer, Austin Coil, and Ken Veney; it’s some interesting reading about an interesting point in the class’ history.
Insider readers conversely ranked Bernstein’s 1984 Bud King Tempo several places higher than its fan ranking, obviously understanding the car’s role in the growing aero wars that would follow. I remember the first time I ever saw this car, at preseason testing at then Firebird Int’l Raceway outside of Phoenix, where Bernstein and Armstrong had granted Leslie Lovett first crack at the wild piece. It ran as a cover story, complete with a multipage story inside from extensive interviews that I did there and, later, on the phone with Armstrong. From its rounded fenderwells to belly pans, lip splitters, enclosed side windows, and more, it was one sexy piece and set the standard going forward. (Remember when Funny Car aerodynamics were some small front fender bubbles to lower the front end a few inches?)
The Ongais/Thompson Mustang at No. 15 was pretty shocking to some of us – the Insider faithful had it ranked much, much higher – and as we have discussed here, the car was perhaps as important for its contributions – some might argue more important – as many cars on the list.
“I don’t think a single car made more far-reaching technical changes to the sport,” said Insider reader Mark Watkins. “The chassis, the headers (the original ‘new’ header design), the exotic powertrain. Mickey Thompson was a noted free thinker and had a keen eye for engineering talent. These converged into this game-changing car. If Thompson had Bernstein's or Prudhomme’s focus, this could have been the start of a decade-long domination.”
As a huge fan of “the Ace,” I was disappointed that the Revellution Demon wasn’t ranked higher, either by fans or by the Insider voters. The car was a killer in 1972 – maybe the only car that could rival the famed Pat Foster-driven Barry Setzer Vega? – and, in my opinion, is easily the most identifiable car on McCulloch’s résumé. Because I would include “the Ace” on any Funny Car top-10 drivers list (maybe even in my top five), it stands to reason that this signature car ranked higher on my personal list.
Rabid Funny Car fan Mark “Hog Wild” Elms’ email expressing his disappointment on “the Ace’s” place began with the subject line “I Can’t Believe It” and went from there. “I believe Phil y'all should have set age limits on the voting,” he wrote. “I feel that many, many fan voters just didn't have the experience that you and I and many of your contributors have. Ed McCulloch was a badass, great driver and I believe he won the U.S. Nationals a few times, too. I figured Bernstein, Nicholson, or Beckman was next. I watched Ed many times, and I have that 1/18th model of his car still in the box."
So here’s a quick recap of the fan vs. Insider vote.
|Ed McCulloch Revellution Demon
|Danny Ongais/Mickey Thompson Mustang
|Kenny Bernstein Bud King Tempo
|Don Prudhomme Pepsi Challenger
|Jim White/Hawaiian Punch Dodge
|Gene Snow Rambunctious Challenger
|Jack Chrisman Comet
As I’m sure you’re aware, Tony Pedregon, in his role as NHRA FOX analyst, also has been offering his personal top-20 list, though his criteria seems to be more personal than analytical, which makes for a cool juxtaposition with the other voting. Here are his picks so far:
14. Joe Pisano/Tom Ridings Arrow (1978)
15. Dale Pulde War Eagle Trans Am (1977)
16. Jim Green/Richard Rogers Green Elephant Vega (1977)
17. Gordie Bonin Bubble Up Trans Am (1977)
18. Al Segrini Black Magic Vega (1974-75)
19. Dale Armstrong/Mike Kase Speed Racer Omni (1980-81)
20. Tom Prock Detroit Tiger Monza (1975-76)
I broke down his 18 to 20 previously, and, on a pure fan basis, I love his 14 through 17 picks. I’ve been a big Pisano fan since I built my first Revell model, the 1973 Pisano & Matsubara Vega. “Papa Joe” always had the coolest paint schemes in the 1970s, and the Arrow certainly was one of them with its bold flames graphics.
The War Eagle Trans Am is the first of Pedregon’s picks that also is on the fan-vote list, but substantially higher. Like the Pisano cars, Pulde and partner Mike Hamby’s rides were always sharp, and combined with the ultra-sleek profile of those Trans Am bodies, it looked fast even standing still.
I’ve also always had an affection for the Green Elephant machines, hard-running cars (despite their mythologically “bad luck” green color) that reached a couple of final rounds, including in Indy in 1977. That is the Vega that Pedregon singled out, though they also had success with Frank Hall, Rob Bruins, and Mike Miller behind the wheel. I did a wonderful interview a few years ago with Jim and Betty Green to talk about their history that you might enjoy. Check it out here
And finally, Bonin’s Bubble Up Trans Am, another car that I was sad did not make the Top 20 list. Bonin was a personal friend of mine, a kinship forged during his post-driving years working in NHRA’s Marketing Department. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was back then, being able to work side by side every day with Bonin and former Top Fuel ace Carl Olson, who also worked at NHRA then. How cool to work with guys you had watched and cheered for! Bonin’s car was also a ’77 Trans Am (Pedregon sure likes cars from 1977!), and the green and red, white, and blue graphics made the car look even more sleek. We lost Gordie a few years ago, but I’ll always be a fan of his.
We’ll unveil both the fan-vote and Pedregon's pick for No. 13 this weekend, so watch for it on the FOX show Saturday or on NHRA.com Sunday. Much discussion to follow, I’m sure.