My columns a few weeks ago about the transition from front-engine to rear-engine Top Fuelers brought a lot of email and a slew of interesting photos about more of the earliest rear-engine attempts as well as some who took the rear-engine design to the next level with two engines behind the driver.
Lest you think that rear-engine cars started on the dragstrip, or even a paved racecourse of any kind, our ol’ buddy Steve Reyes dredged up a couple of photos to prove otherwise. Above is a car called the Buggly Woggly, which was steam-powered and ran on a half-mile circuit on the beach in Ormond Beach, Fla. (because, of course, there were no dragstrips back then). According to Reyes, the car had two engines -- one attached to each rear wheel -- and had a tiller to steer. Below is the Stanley Steamer-powered rear-engine car driven by Fred Marriott. Dubbed the Rocket, it also raced down the sand, and it set a world record at 127 mph, then flew and crashed at an estimated 150 mph in 1906.
Troy Cagle sent this drag-mag clipping with a photograph of the wild rear-engine fueler driven by his father, Gary, in the mid-1950s. Dubbed Half Fast, it was built by the senior Cagle and Don Hampton. Incorporating a swing-axle suspension and powered by a 353-cid Chrysler, it hit 121.57 at Lions. Cagle also ran a belly tanker at Bonneville that was called Half Fast as well and got him into the 200-mph Club.
Steve Gibbs, whose 75th birthday we’ll be feting (along with the 50th anniversary of Irwindale) Saturday at the NHRA Museum (details
), sent these two photos of a rear-engine machine concocted by 1958 Nationals champ Ted Cyr and Emery Cook. His lone comment: “Evil-handling experiment.” I can see that.
I don’t know anything about this car except that there’s no way I would ever drive it. Kind of a similar approach to the Cyr/Cook car with a tricycle-style setup, but with four tires, and treaded ones at that.
Jim Quatrale, of Sterling, Mass., spotted this car at the inaugural NHRA Motorsports Museum New England Hot Rod Reunion presented by AAA Insurance at New England Dragway in 2013. The sign accompanying the display says that it’s a re-creation (by Steve Rutkowski) of the Warren, Coburn & Crowe B/Fuel Dragster, circa 1958-59. That would be the legendary James Warren and Roger Coburn and driver Bob Crowe. The car initially was powered by a 354 Hemi from a Fiat Altered that Coburn ran, which was replaced by a 459 sporting six Stromberg 97s that was linked to a Halibrand Quick Change. The car was dubbed the Chaise Lunge because of the lay-down driver position (sticker on the car: “Lying down on the job works best") and weighed just a tick more than 1,200 pounds. According to Crowe in an interview with Hot Rod
, “It went straight and true, except for one sideways trip through the lights.” The car ran for about two seasons and, by all accounts, was a winner. Eventually, the drivetrain went into the team’s twin-engine dragster. Crowe moved on with his own Allison-powered dragster while Warren and Coburn went on to great success as the Ridge Route Terrors of Top Fuel.
Chet Herbert was no stranger to experimentation, and one of his wildest cars was this rear-engine sidewinder dragster, which ran in 1962 with Zane Shubert at the wheel. The side-mounted 450-cid Chevy channeled power to the axles through three flywheel gears. Shubert has said that the car launched great but randomly would hook hard left or right a couple of hundred feet downtrack, so the car was parked.
This is another weird one, known only to us due to an undated Custom Rodder
article. The Cannonball Express, run by Johnny Sableton out of Bay Shore, N.Y., originally was a single-engine car powered by a flathead; Sableton later added a ’55 Chevy V-8 to make this unusual entry.
Twin-engine dragsters are nothing new to drag racing – they were most popular during the front-engine Top Gas heyday and even tried in a few Top Fuel slingshots – but sticking twin engines behind the driver was a whole ‘nother thing. Dennis Friend, who runs the authoritative twin-engine site Two To Go, shared some images and info with me.
This is Don Jensen’s Head Hunter, which he hand-built beginning in late 1955. As you can see, it had an engine both in front of and behind the rear tires. Jensen tried several configurations and powerplants before settling on a pair of 370-horsepower, gas-burning engines, each displacing 364 cubic inches. He set his sights on Fritz Voight’s 141-mph record and easily surpassed it with seven runs in excess of 150 mph, including a best of 155 at California’s Kingdon Dragway in February 1957. After being drafted, he didn’t get back to the strip until the following summer, and his return to Kingdon didn’t go nearly as well; the car rolled at 140 mph, sending both engines bouncing “like basketballs” down the track. Damage to the car was surprisingly limited (and Jensen suffered only a chipped tooth), but the cost of repairing the engines was beyond his means, and he sold the chassis. More at http://twotogo.homestead.com/TTGHistoryDonJensen.html
Ken Miller, an engineer by trade, built this car, dubbed the Tiller Miller because it featured tiller-style steering using a motorcycle-style front end. The two Pontiac engines were connected in the middle to a one-ton Ford rear end that Miller had fabricated with two pinions, one in each direction. The car, which ran around 1960, only made a few passes, according to his friend Ron Johnson, due to oiling problems with the rear engine that led to failure. Miller simply unbolted the rear chassis/motor assembly and ran the car with one engine.
Rick Clark’s twin, built by him and his dad, had Oldsmobile power.
Friend did not have an ID on the car in the near lane, but you can see the second engine through the tire smoke. That’s the Franks & Funk twin slingshot in the far lane, which dates the image to 1968-69.
The end of Top Gas (1971) probably came too soon as far as Rico Paris was concerned. Along with his brother, Peter, Paris built this dual-engine Top Gas dragster out of their Rockford, Ill., base. Powered by dual injected 465-cid Hemis on gas, the car was competitive but not capable of outrunning the slingshots, though it did qualify at the last Top Gas race in history, the NHRA Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway in 1971. Paris’ son, Dom, restored the car years later and ran it on the nostalgia circuit. (Steve Reyes photo)
And finally, certainly one of the most heartwarming tales of twin rear-engine lore is the story of this car, owned by Northern Californians Rich Brunelli and Leo Dunn. Dunn had driven the team’s cars, which included front-engine twins in Comp eliminator, before relinquishing the hot seat to Joe Ortega. The twin-Chevy machine had failed to qualify at the 1975 SPORTSnationals at Beech Bend Raceway Park in Kentucky and stopped in Columbus on the way home for the NHRA Springnationals. After qualifying just 15th in Pro Comp, Ortega stunned the field by defeating two of the best in the business: low qualifier Dale Armstrong in the semifinals (pictured) and heavily favored Ken Veney in the final. Dunn was quoted in that week’s National Dragster
: “In 20 years of racing, I’ve never even qualified for a national event much less won one.”
OK, that was fun. … I appreciate all of the input and photos. Thanks again for stopping by.
I’m off this week to Charlotte for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, and the column that I had planned didn’t pan out. I’ve been holding on to the photos below for just such an occasion, so I made a beeline for them to share with you this weekend.
They were sent to me by Chris Muhli, and they show good ol’ Beeline Dragway in 1970. Richard Brereton, a friend of Chris’, took the photos, many of which were in pretty rough shape – age spots, wrinkles, ink bleed-through from a rubber stamp, etc. – but I used Photoshop to clean up a number of them to publishable quality. The work was worth it because, as Chris wrote in his email, “They aren’t the best quality, but they still show some neat details of how it was back then. … I thought you might find them interesting.”
As you’ve seen throughout the years, I love these old shoebox/scrapbook finds because they’re clearly shot by a fan and have the ability to transport you back into the photographer’s shoes and give you that unfiltered look at the era. There are a lot of pit shots in his collection, and I think I speak for a lot of us who went to the drags back in the day that half of the fun of going was that first trip through the pits to see who was there and what they had brought. These photos do that for me.
Before I saw my first Funny Car, I built a lot of plastic models, and I always remember how those chassis looked, with the “tray” of tin extended outside the roll cage, as exemplified in this shot of Gene Snow’s Funny Car. Love the header scorch marks on the body. Snow was a killer on the NHRA and AHRA trails in the early 1970s.
“Big Mike” Burkhart’s pit was crammed with three Funny Cars, his Nova and two Camaros. Burkhart drove and had a series of other drivers wheeling his cars, including my old pal Mart Higginbotham, Charlie Therwanger, and Paul Gordon.
Another great look under the skin, this time of Roland Leong’s Hawaiian Charger, which won the NHRA Winternationals that year with Larry Reyes driving. Their Pomona victory was a huge turn of fortunes from the 1968 event, when their new Charger took flight in the lights, but by this time late in the year Pat Foster had taken over the controls..
How about this gem? I’m pretty sure that’s Ed McCulloch warming up his car. Check out the tin that surrounds the driver cockpit. Pretty cool.
And here’s “the Ace” on the track with the Whipple & McCulloch Barracuda, which replaced the Duster they lost to fire earlier in the year. The photo also gives you some kind of idea of the way the place looked. Most photos you see are shot from the other side of the track.
Another fine detail shot. I’m going to go out on a limb (again) and say that, based on the paint color and decal arrangement, this is Tom McEwen's Duster.
Here's “the Snake’s” Hot Wheels Barracuda getting backed up from a burnout. Note that there’s no guardrail lining the track on the left lane.
The slingshot of recent Insider profile subject “Kansas John” Wiebe sat ready in the pits. Note Don Prudhomme’s iconic Hot Wheels hauler in the background.
Here’s Delmar Hines’ Bantam-bodied, Missouri-based Die Hard fuel altered, looking mean and ready on the trailer.
The 1970 season was the first for Pro Stock. Above is the Herb McCandless-driven Sox & Martin Duster, and below is Butch Leal’s California Flash Camaro, his last non-Mopar for a long time.
Here’s Tommy Maras’ unique homebuilt Chevelle wheelstander, appropriately dubbed Moonshot.
Thanks to Chris for sharing these photos and giving us all a little trip back in time, 45 years into the past.
Nellie Goins wasn’t the first female to ever strap herself into a supercharged, nitro-burning Funny Car – pioneers like Paula Murphy, Della Woods, and Shirley Muldowney all preceded her – nor the first African-American racer to try their hand at the volatile machines – Malcom Durham and his protégés, Lee Jones and Western Bunns, all were there before her – but hers is a story that transcends firsts, let alone gender and race.
The fact that she was both female and African American in a time when the sport, and even the world, was not always kind to either is not even the takeaway from the story of her brief time in the sport. I’d long been aware of “Nitro Nellie,” but it wasn’t until last weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals that I got a chance to spend some time with her. She was there, along with her beautifully restored Mustang Funny Car, as part of the event’s Hot Rod Junction and took part in autograph sessions and chatted with fans, some of who knew of her and some just learning. She got to sit next to legendary quarter-mile Don Garlits and met Antron Brown. It was quite a weekend.
Now 75, Nellie is just beginning to get the accolades of her long-ended career, including being honored late last year by the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame, and I was just as eager to see that she got due respect for her efforts in the sport. I had no idea of the story of family love and devotion that would unfold in our subsequent phone calls.
Nellie was just a teenager in high school in Indiana when she met the man who would change her life, Otis, a talented offensive guard on their school’s football team. He loved sports and cars, and they married not long after. She was just 16, and he recently graduated and headed into the service.
The two built a life together in Gary, Ind., and started a family that by the late 1960s had grown to four children. He toiled at U.S. Steel and she at the Joliet Army munitions plant in Illinois, where she worked her way up to building supervisor at the plant that produced 105 mm howitzer shells and other armament during the Vietnam War.
Through it all, Otis never forgot his passion for cars, and with fabled U.S. 30 Dragway practically in their backyard, it was only natural that the dragstrip would be a place for him to express that desire. And when Otis dreamed, he always dreamed big, and he wanted a Funny Car.
So the duo scrimped and saved, often working double shifts at their respective jobs. For Nellie, that meant 60-mile long drives to and from work – and one time getting stranded on the highway in a snowstorm for a day and a half, taking refuge with 95 others inside a tiny gas station – and doing without a lot of life’s luxuries one might want.
“We had a rough time getting started with money in general because I was only 16, but he always said we had to put money aside, no matter how little, until it finally got to the point there was enough to start something,” she recalled. “As the song says, ‘It was a long time comin.' "
The end result of all of that hard work was an injected-on-alcohol ’68 Barracuda that Otis dubbed the Conqueror. Otis was going to drive the car himself, but he suffered from diabetes and was not able to pass the physical. So Nellie did the only thing she could think of to salve his broken heart and keep the dream alive. She offered to drive it.
“Drag racing was not my first passion, but I did it for my husband and my family,” she admits. “I always believed that if a woman kept her husband happy, everything would be beautiful. This was the family dream.”
She also admits that she was unprepared for what she had signed up for.
“I had no respect at all for the car the first time I got in it,” she recalls. “We took the car to an abandoned airstrip near where we lived, and since neither of us had ever driven one of these cars, we didn’t know a whole lot about what to do. I was so nonchalant and relaxed that when I stood on the gas, a half-second later my head snapped back and I realized this wasn’t your grandma’s car. I found that respect pretty quickly.”
(Above) Otis and Nellie's first Funny Car was this Dodge Charger. A Challenger replaced it, but the body was damaged by a tire incident (below).
After a year of getting their feet wet on the various Midwest match race alcohol circuits, Otis decided to convert the car to injected nitro. According to Nellie, he was never shy about asking for help, even going as far as to approach the likes of Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme for advice, and he found an expert helping hand in former U.S. Nationals championship tuner Ken Hirata, who lived in Lowell, Ind., just 30 miles from Gary.
“Kenny became my husband’s mentor,” she remembers. “Whenever we had a problem we couldn’t figure out, we’d call on good ol’ Kenny, and he’d come down to help us. One of my funniest stories about Kenny was the time he drove down to help us get the car ready for a race one Sunday. Where we lived, there was a church on the other side of the alley from our garage, and catty-corner from us was another church, and across the street was another church. Roland Leong was staying with Kenny that weekend, so he came down, too. When we finally fired it up, it was right during the middle of church service. You have no idea how many cops and preachers showed up.”
The Goins' four children were at their feet at every event, the youngest around five, the oldest 12, and served as pit crew along with help from one of Otis’ friends and one of Nellie’s co-workers at the munitions plant. “They didn’t know much, but they were good at taking orders, and Mr. Goins was good at giving orders,” she said with a laugh.
“The kids were our pit crew; they were well-behaved because they were strictly raised, and they worked hard. It gets cold in Gary, Ind., in the winter, and the kids would be out there with us in the garage laying on the cold pavement, working on the car to get it ready for the next spring.”
Drag racing in the 1960s was not an especially welcoming environment to women, and race relations then are not quite what they are today, but Nellie says that they never experienced any troubles on either front.
“No one ever mistreated us because of our race,” she said. “In fact, we were pretty well ignored. We didn’t have the big money or big sponsor, and we certainly didn’t have time to socialize. We had a few fans, but because it was all business, nose to the grindstone to get the car ready, we didn’t have time to chat with them. We didn’t want them to think we were snobbish; we just didn’t have time to talk to them. We were just trying to hold it together.”
Nellie and Otis eventually traded the '68 Barracuda body in for a new '70 Challenger body, but their beautiful new treasure was heavily damaged on one of their first runs when the tire reached out and grabbed the right side of the body, tearing it off below the window.
“We were at U.S. 30, and we didn’t figure on the tire growth, and when I took off, I looked over and there was nothing but daylight on that side,” she said. “It was clear we were strictly amateurs.”
It was during this time that the Goins team received a shot of recognition in Ebony magazine. At Otis’ urging, Nellie had written to the magazine, providing them with a detailed story of their efforts. They rejected her article but decided instead to send a reporter and photographer to accompany them at a match race at Tri-State Raceway in Ohio. The resulting story spanned five pages and ran in the November 1971 issue, and she later also was featured in Ebony Jr., but the hopes of the articles attracting a sponsorship soon faded. “We never were able to get a sponsor of any kind,” she laments. “I think the most we ever got was spark plugs.”
Despite their steep learning curve, the goal was the AA/FC ranks of supercharged nitro, so in early 1970, they commissioned chassis builder Lee Austin to build them a new car, which they cloaked with a Fiberglass Ltd. ’71 Mach 1 Mustang body. The car debuted Aug. 29, 1971, at U.S. 30 in injected nitro trim and later was converted to full-blown nitroburner. The car was capable of running in the low sevens at speeds approaching 215 mph.
The dream ride came to an end one weekend a few years later at Bristol Dragway. The right front tire got off the track, damaging both the chassis and the body. Although Otis ordered a new Monza shell for the car, his health had begun to decline as the result of his diabetes, and the team could no longer afford to race, so the car was parked and sat in their garage for almost three decades.
“Even though he was sick and bedridden, he would still be going through his National Dragster and other car magazines ordering parts,” she remembers. “He always dreamed of getting the car back out.”
Otis passed away in July 2001, and a few years later, Nellie finally parted with the car. The first owner, Sam Ballen, kept it for a few years, then sold it to Rick Lucas, who wanted to do – with Nellie’s blessing and cooperation – a 100 percent accurate restoration of the car, which was showcased last weekend in the Hot Rod Junction at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville.
“Rick was so dedicated to getting it right,” she said, almost in awe. “He calls me before he does anything and checks to see if the way he has it is the same as the original. Having the car at the Gatornationals was the greatest thing that could ever happen. Otis has been gone 14 years, but I know that he saw it.” You can see photos of the restoration at http://www.conquerorracing.com/current.html.
The Gatornationals was a treat for Nellie in so many other ways. She was able to reconnect with Hirata’s wife, Chiyo, for the first time since the 1970s and with his son, David, who was there to tune on Mia Tedesco’s Top Alcohol Dragster. And she got to meet Brown, who made history in 2012 as NHRA’s first African-American Pro champ and, like the rest of us, fell in love with him.
Nellie was thrilled to meet Antron Brown in the pits in Gainesville.
“He’s so sweet; he is the nicest guy,” she raved. “He’s already married so I can’t get him to marry my daughter, but I would consider adopting him and his whole family. He welcomed me like he’d known me his whole life and introduced me to the crowd [of fans] around his trailer. He took me inside his trailer and opened a cabinet and there were 16 pair of brand-new heads; what we would have given to have two extra pair of brand-new heads back then."
She also got to sit next to Garlits during the autograph session and was thrilled to know that he knew who she was. “He is drag racing; anyone who knows anything about drag racing knows Don Garlits,” she said. “He was a whole different person than I knew of when we were racing. He’s a very interesting man, and he just kept talking to me, and he had no idea how much I was enjoying that and getting to know him.”
The Gatornationals followed her East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame honors – her kids, the youngest of whom is now 47, and her sister all flew in from various parts of the country to attend that ceremony – and she still can’t believe she’s remembered all these years later.
“I cannot believe this; it’s all such a whirlwind,” she said. “It blows me away. I was so shocked I almost turned down [the Hall of Fame] because I never broke any records or anything and didn’t feel worthy of all of this praise, but my daughter told me, ‘It’s not about all of that; you opened the door,’ and I realized that she was right, because we were out there fighting and trying. The most common thing I heard from fans in Gainesville was ‘Thank you for what you did for the sport,’ which makes me feel good. There is such a thing as getting your roses before you die.”
In her Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Nellie spoke only briefly, but poignantly. Her key remark being one that well suits her story: “Remember it is not just your ability to do something but your availability to get out there and try. Live your dreams."
Last weekend, racers descended on Bakersfield for the 58th running of the March Meet, which now is part of NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series but for decades was known as one of the great fuel-racing events on the calendar.
In 1959, the Smokers Car Club of Bakersfield created what it called an East vs. West challenge and paid Don Garlits to make his first trek west to prove that the incredible numbers he had been laying down back East were legitimate and that he was the real deal. Garlits had a less than memorable outing, and a Bakersfield win eluded him until 1965, when he had a monster weekend.
Fifty years later, into my email Inbox comes a wonderful collection of rare color photos from that event, sent by column reader Charles Milikin Jr., of Oakdale, Conn., who as a 21-year-old made the Garlits-like cross-country trek to the Valhalla of nitro racing.
“I was a drag racing fan and amateur photographer from Connecticut and loved reading about all the great cars on the West Coast In the pages of Drag News and National Dragster,” he explained. “My cousin and I planned to go to Bakersfield and also visit one of his friends that lived in El Cajon when his family moved there (his dad was in the Navy at that time). So we drove cross-country in my '63 Chevy Impala and had a wonderful experience. We took turns driving and went nonstop, traveling the old Route 66. It was fueler heaven for a reason, and I have great memories from a wonderful period of drag racing. I somehow managed not to throw out some of the negatives from way back then. These were all from behind the fence. I was fortunate to have a telephoto lens with me."
Don Garlits has often called it his "greatest win," which is really saying something considering the many huge victories he scored in his career. Here “Big Daddy” shared the winning moment with his daughters, Gay Lynn (wearing his face mask) and Donna.
Garlits, runner-up the previous year to Connie Kalitta, brought three cars out West: his own Swamp Rat VI-B, with which he had won the Nationals the year before; Swamp Rat 8, driven by Connie Swingle, which featured a rear wild torsion bar and was fitted with the new 426 Hemi; and the Garlits Chassis Special (a near clone of SR VI), driven by “Starvin’ Marvin” Schwartz.
Garlits won all six rounds of Saturday’s 64-car show; Swingle and Schwartz were beaten early. The winner of the Saturday show was scheduled to face the winner of Sunday’s 32-car field. Swingle didn’t make the quick 32 cut, but Schwartz did despite having problems with the engine. Garlits was on hand to watch, but Schwartz asked Garlits to drive his car in the first round so he could hear it run “for tuning purposes.” Garlits won his first-round race, so Schwartz let him drive again, and he won again. Three rounds later, Garlits had also vanquished the 32-car field.
Seeing as how he couldn’t race himself in the Saturday vs, Sunday overall winner final, Schwartz hopped back into the car. They flipped for lane choice; Garlits won and picked the right lane because the left had recently been oiled. Schwartz had other ideas, though, and after the push-start zoomed right into the right lane ahead of Garlits, who surrendered the lane to his good friend, then beat him anyway with an 8.10 at 205 mph yet was none-too-pleased with his good friend. The victory competed Garlits’ quest to win all of the big three events of that era (the Nationals, Winternationals, and March Meet).
I’m not sure if this is Garlits or Marvin Schwartz in the Garlits Chassis Special “shop car.” What I do know is that this car was later shortened and became the chassis for Swamp Rat IX, the Roadster Dart, one of the few Swamp Rats that wasn’t a Top Fuel dragster.
Swingle went on to take runner-up honors behind James Warren in Sunday’s 16-car consolation event (some say that Swingle won the controversial, smoke-filled final), making for an impressive weekend for the Garlits team.
The rest of Milikin’s photos help set the mood for the time. I don’t have a lot of information on most of them beyond what Milikin provided, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy them just the same.
Fresh off of winning the Winternationals, here’s Don Prudhomme in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian. Not long after the March Meet, they headed back East on tour and became household names before the year was out after also winning the Nationals.
Most fans know Bill Leavitt for his long line of Quickie Two Funny Cars, but before he raced floppers, he was into Top Fuel with this Tommy Ivo-built dragster.
Oregon’s Cordy Jensen hiked the front end in the Bev's Steak House Top Fueler, which was sponsored by the family business. Jensen became a very successful restaurateur with a stake in more than 90 restaurants.
Chuck Hepler’s Fugitive, which made the long tow out West from Champaign, Ill.
The original Winkle-Trapp-Fuller Magi-car. I’m not sure who was driving it at this event, but my money is on Jeep Hampshire.
The A&B Speed Shop injected Chevy of Bernie Regals and Ade Kynff in the near-deserted Famoso pits. The duo made the trip to California from Somerville, Mass., in early 1965 and raced at Lions and other tracks.
Unknown Jr. Fueler warming up in the pits
Dave Beebe lit the hides in the Beebe Bros./JA Speed Center Chevy-powered ‘32 Bantam fuel altered.
West Coast Gasser legend Jack “the Bear” Coonrod was partners on this bright yellow Willys – dubbed the Kamakazi Koup – with Wayne Harry.
Thanks again to Charles for sharing these great pics. I see a lot of great old photos, but a lot of them are black and white, so to have color photos, and from such a memorable event, is a real treat. I hope you enjoyed them.