Sometimes you just never know who’s going to be on the other end of the phone (especially in my line of work), so it was a great pleasure – and great timing – when I learned that the voice on the other end of the line earlier this week belonged to pioneering female drag racer Paula Murphy, the first woman to be granted a license to drive a nitro-fueled car of any kind – in her case, a Funny Car.

She had heard from friends that her car had been on the cover of a recent issue of NHRA National Dragster and was calling for details and to get a few extra copies of the issue, which included several features on the history of the Funny Car class as part of NHRA’s yearlong celebration of 50 years of floppers.

The cover, pictured at right, included her Barracuda as well as the floppers of Roland Leong, “Big John” Mazmanian, and Candies & Hughes lined up along the guardrail at Orange County Int’l Raceway in 1969, presumably for a mass fire-up. We loved the photo – one of many shot that day -- and thought it would make a great cover for the issue, and we were right.

Well, you know what happened next on that phone call. “Of course I can send you a few extra copies, Paula, and hey, while I’ve got you on the phone ... ”

In the past month here, we have discussed other Funny Car firsts – first Funny Car, first flip-top body, first race winner, first season champion, etc. – so a story about the first woman Funny Car driver fits right into our ongoing narrative.

Paula Murphy certainly came to the task well equipped and experienced, especially at being a pioneer. She had raced sports cars for almost a decade and had set hundreds of women’s records in a variety of motoring feats. And at a time when women weren’t even allowed in the pits at the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, she became the first woman to drive an Indy-style race car there, thanks to her lifelong friendship with STP’s Andy Granatelli, in whose Novi race car she lapped the fabled Brickyard oval. Speed clearly was not an issue either, as she had driven Walt Arfons’ Avenger jet dragster to a female land-speed record of 226.37 mph at Bonneville.

In 1964, she got her first taste of drag racing when she was offered an Olds 442 by the LA and Orange County Dealers Association. The car was prepared by Mopar legend Dick Landy, and she raced it for two years in Stock eliminator.

After one race at Southern California’s Irwindale Raceway, a young helper insisted that they stop by The Irwindale Inn, just south of the dragstrip at the corner of Irwindale and McKinley avenues and the local watering hole and hangout for Irwindale’s fast and famous. There, she met Jack Bynum, who would become her mentor, crew chief, and dear friend.

“Fat Jack,” as he was known at the time, was a familiar face among the Top Fuel ranks but obviously thought the timing was right for Funny Car.

“He came up and introduced himself, and we chatted for a while, and he said that I should consider running a Funny Car.” she remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t know about that,’ because back then, the Funny Cars were pretty crude, but one thing led to another, and I said OK, I’d give it a try, and before long, I had a Funny Car.”

 

Bynum built the chassis and the 392 engine that sat beneath a Mustang body. Granatelli provided sponsorship for Murphy, who quickly became known as Miss STP. Tom McEwen, then the president of the UDRA, was the first to welcome the idea of a female Funny Car racer – especially one with a sponsor and a powerful ally in Granatelli – and oversaw her licensing at Lions Drag Strip in late 1966. It took a couple of outings before she got the required signatures, provided by none other than McEwen and Don Garlits, and, once she had proven herself capable, NHRA acceded and granted her a license.

The Mustang ran low-eight-second passes through 1967, and Murphy found herself a popular draw with track operators all eager to see the “lady racer.”

“I was a real oddity, and I think a lot of strip operators thought it was pretty good to sell tickets,” she said. “I didn’t have problem getting booking dates. I was very well accepted not only by the tracks but by my fellow racers. Back then, there was a lot of camaraderie between the teams helping one another out. We were a big family.”

Late in 1967, however, word came down from ever-cautious NHRA that her license had been rescinded, along with those of several other female racers in the faster classes, and that the quickest class in which they would be allowed to compete was Super Stock.

Fortunately for Murphy, STP was an NHRA sponsor, and Granatelli again interceded on her behalf. The decision was reversed, but not before it cost Murphy and Bynum bookings at NHRA tracks.

Murphy broke into the sevens and cracked the 200-mph barrier in 1968, but the crude Mustang – which didn’t even have a windshield when she first started racing it – was on its last legs. For 1969, Murphy bought the Don Hardy-built Barracuda, originally constructed for Larry Reyes before he signed with Leong for the 1969 season.

Della Woods, another early female Funny Car racer, was a regular opponent in those days, especially when Murphy rented a summer home at Geneva on the Lake, on the shores of Lake Erie just east of Cleveland, and plied her trade on the same Midwest tracks as Detroit-based Woods and her brother, Bernie, with their Funny Honey Dodge. Murphy only had a few dates with Shirley Muldowney, and breakage and bad luck intervened to the point that they never got to run against one another.

As for a lot of the Funny Car teams then, match races were where the money was, and Murphy and Bynum rarely competed at NHRA national events because AHRA and IHRA would pay her an appearance fee to run their big meets, and NHRA would not. Murphy and Bynum were often accompanied by her teenage son, Danny; her father, Paul; and their Alaskan Malamute.

In 1971, Murphy was invited to Talladega Superspeedway to drive the STP Dodge stock car of Freddie Lorenzen, with which she broke the NASCAR women’s closed-course record at 171.499 mph. The team got a new Duster-bodied Funny Car that not only toured the country but also went to England in 1973, along with Don Schumacher, as part of a three-weekend trip organized by Tony Nancy. A buyer was already in place for her car, which would stay behind, while Murphy pursued a new assignment as a rocket-car driver. She had wheeled Tony Fox’s Pollution Packer to a 258-mph pass at the Winternationals and was slated to drive Ky Michaelson’s rocket dragster in 1974.

In early 1974, on a fateful day at Northern California’s Sears Point Raceway (now Sonoma Raceway), Murphy rocketed down the strip, and after crossing the finish line at 258 mph, the hydrogen-peroxide-fueled rocket engine would not shut down, and when she deployed both parachutes, they ripped right off of the car. She went off the end of the track at approximately 300 mph, skillfully threaded the car through a narrow gate, then hit a hill and went airborne (she estimates 70 feet off the ground), then went end over end several times on landing. She suffered a broken neck but was lucky to escape with her life.

“I remember seeing sky and saying, ‘Oh no’ and a couple of expletives, but I was knocked out on landing,” she remembers, “but that was the end of really fast cars for me.”

She continued competing – setting a record for an around-the-world drive – and returned to drag racing in 1976 with a B/Modified Compact Datsun and later a front-wheel-drive Z/Stock Honda Civic, having “a ball” touring around the country before retiring from racing. She was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1992.

“I got really, really lucky,” she said modestly. “I don’t think many people have gotten the opportunity to do some of the things that I did. I don’t look at myself as anything special; it was just the time for a woman to try to drive a Funny Car, and I felt rather proud that I was the one.”

Since Murphy opened the door, 13 other women (Woods, Muldowney, Carol Yenter, Rodalyn Knox, Susie Spencer, Paula Martin, Vicky Fanning, Cristen Powell, Ashley Force Hood, Melanie Troxel, Alexis DeJoria, Courtney Force, and Leah Pritchett) licensed with NHRA to compete in the class, and four of them (both Force sisters, plus Troxel and DeJoria) have won an NHRA national event in the class, including the biggest of them all, the Chevrolet Performance U.S. Nationals (Force Hood in 2009 and 2010 and DeJoria in 2014).

Force Hood, oldest daughter of class legend John, also recorded the highest female championship finish in class history, second, in 2009. Unlike in the three other NHRA Pro classes, a woman has never won a world championship in Funny Car, but sometime in the future, someone will, and she’ll have Paula Murphy, and the others who followed in her trailblazing path, to thank.
 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


Leroy Goldstein and the Ramchargers: first into the sixes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Larry Reyes and Leong and the first Hawaiian Funny Car.

Enter Larry Reyes.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

'Jungle Clare' SandersFriday, February 19, 2016

Clare Sanders, then and now

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy Clare Sanders Collection

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1969 WINTERNATIONALS FUNNY CAR FIELD
Tom McEwen 7.796, 193.66
Low qualifier Tom McEwen
Don Schumacher 8.024, 193.65
Clare Sanders 8.035, 191.08
Ray Alley 8.148, 183.67
Randy Walls 8.204, 180.00
Rich Siroonian 8.223, 185.11
Pat Foster 8.240, 181.45
Mike Hamby 8.256, 187.89
Marv Eldridge 8.277, 185.95  
Kelly Chadwick
Dave Beebe 8.277, 188.28
Kelly Chadwick 8.298, 187.89
Art Ward 8.300, 185.56
Leonard Hughes 8.311, 187.89
Eddie Schartman 8.326, 174.75
Ron Leslie 8.326, 170.13
Larry Reyes 8.331, 180.72

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Super Camaro

Sanders also wheeled the famed Chi-Town Hustler

The Ramchagers Dodge was Sanders' last ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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