Two weeks ago, we heard from former Funny Car racer Jeff Foulk, who shared his memories of the East Coast Fuel Funny Car Circuit, and this week, I heard from fellow era flopper pilot Drake Viscome, who dropped me not one but two hefty packages filled with photos and flyers from the circuit as well as pages of handwritten notes that shed a little more light on the old series.
Tom "Smoker" Smith did most of the early booking with Frank Leseuer while also driving one of what Viscome calls "the stalwart duo" of the series, Kenny Warren's Virginia Twister. The other member of that dynamic duo was Gene Altizer's Pak Rat, and Viscome noted that both have been deservedly inducted into the East Coast Hall of Fame.
Viscome ran through a list of the competitors, with notes on many famous names you may recognize outright or whom you have read about here who used the circuit as a springboard to success.
"Old friend John Skistimas was partnered up with Jake Crimmins for a year and later with Tom Stapleton for a year or two. Al Segrini with brother Lou had the American Express car for a couple of years before the Jim Beattie/ATI Black Magic AA/FC. For a year or two, Al Hanna ran with his Eastern Raider Pinto before he and Joe Mundet switched to AA/FC. Old pals Joe Amato and Tim Richards raced with us for a year or two as well with the Keystone Kuda before going Alcohol Funny Car racing with the Gabriel Hi-Kacker Monza.
"There were a good number of others that ran this deal (travel … lots of it, and a bunch of shows) that should not be forgotten. They were part of the 'the gang' that raced week in and week out up and down the East Coast a couple of times a week (at least!) every week: Butch Kernodle's All-American cars; Nick Boninfante and Pat Walsh; Billy Lerner's Paper Boy SOHC Ford cars; Oren 'Pop' Whitt and Randy Bray with the Hippie Hemi; 'Jumpin' Joe' Weis (Top Fuel racer Scott Weis' dad); the Carlton Bros.' Swinger; the late Bobby Martindale's Tonka; Jim Wiggleworth and Kenny Warren's Mini Cuda and Mini Charger; the Mini Brute Opel of Charlie Gary, Dan Smoker, and Nick Allen; Charles 'Scottie' Scott and J.R. Rice's Twister Buster and Highland Bandit entries; the late Charles Lee's Super Javelin and Camaro; and Leroy Worley. All of these cats were the heart of the ECFFCC most of all of the years, not a year and gone.
"More ECFFCC guys/cars: 'Joltin' Joe' Fennesy; Bowen & Kopper (with Ed Kopper, who went on to be crew chief for Bob Newberry for many years), Jay Miner's the Trip; the Lucas & Harte Vitamin C Charger; the late Bob 'Gator' Dalton; and Don Hulse and the Plane Crazy."
Viscome also remembers the special relationships that the series forged with track owners and operators such as Vinnie and Richard Napp in Englishtown, Jack Musselli at Atco, the Lewis family at Maple Grove, and Julio Marra and Capitol and Aquasco.
Although the circuit began with injected nitro cars only, it began welcoming blown alcohol cars in 1974, at which point Nick Boninfante began doing the booking.
"When Boninfante took over the booking and formed Fuel Funny Car promotions, the series featured some of the best racers ever known," he continued. "Carol 'Bunny' Burkett; Carol 'Warlock' Henson; Rodlyn 'Country Girl' Knox; Frank 'Ace' Manzo; Bob Chipper; Glen Lazaar; Keith Hughes and Arnie Karp and the Boston Strangler; the Bell Boys; Pete Gallen and Rich McPhillips and Poverty Stricken; Joe Samolyk and the Pleasure Seekers; Gene Terenzio's Italian Stallion; and Anton Addesseo's Pig Pen. Running these guys every week was like running a national event.
"How about ol' Bill Barrett, the legendary crew chief for Kenny Warren, Jim Beattie's ATI Black Magic, and even got 'Bunny' started after we sold her the first Funny Car. He's still active and has helped so many but never really received his 'just due' recognition. He was well-liked, a gentleman, and very well-respected by all that knew him.
"For sure, the West Coast always had/has a cavalry of awesome racers -- the Midwest, too – but 'back East,' we had/have a pretty good number of bad Joses, too."
Viscome wheeled a long line of entries sponsored by Carmel Ford under the Vindicator name. During his time on the circuit, Viscome's cars always were Ford-powered, initially with engines from Wayne Gapp, then Gapp & Roush, and finally Ed Pink.
Of his own career path, Viscome admitted that his team "could never really make the transition needed to go from paid-to-appear/run format for 15 years to the Big Show qualifying and competition. In hindsight, it wasn't really money (because we were well-funded), it really was just ego and complacency and'just plain lazy. Obviously, Joe Amato and later Frank Manzo accomplished the'transition pretty well.
"That era was something," he concluded. "For sure, I was just grateful to have been a little part of it."
Thanks for the memories, Drake. It's very clear in my mind that for many people, it didn't take a supercharger to supercharge their desires, and the fans loved the injected cars, too. This is already beginning to look like another of those ramp-truck/wedge-dragster threads as the photos and memories keep pouring in. More later this week.
Hey, remember me? Yeah, the guy who writes a twice-weekly column here? Yeah, that guy.
Well, I'm back after missing the call for Tuesday's first round. A combination of two family emergencies, dealing with a head cold, and a boatload of National DRAGSTER work forced the no-show, but you don't want to hear those excuses, right? Anyway, apologies all around, and the next round's on me.
Today is actually a paid vacation day for the NHRA staff, so both buildings are shuttered. Me, always a glutton for punishment, I'm in the office, taking advantage of the quiet to catch up on this column and the other stuff I fell behind on as well as expense reports, annual employee reviews, and all of the other fun stuff that wasn't in the original help-wanted ad.
I'm working on a couple of other columns dealing with this month's hot topic – injected fuel Funny Cars – but neither is quite ready, so I'm going to share the interesting images below, which reader Ed Eberlein sent.
One of my all-time favorite cars, Mickey Thompson's Grand Am. Ed got original driver Butch Maas to autograph it.
Ed, apparently, was like a lot of us in high school, taking to doodling in class, with the subject naturally being race cars, but unlike most of us, he was pretty good at it and had the foresight to take his finished drawings to the digs and get them autographed by the subjects of his handiwork, giving him a unique – and, I'm guessing, a very collectible – and extensive autograph collection and a hobby that led to great things. And anytime the subject is '70s Funny Cars, I don't care if it's photos or drawings, I'm interested.
"These are all hand drawn with Flair felt pens back when I was in high school, in 1970-73, or maybe a tad beyond into the mid-'70s," he said. "I lived in Sacramento and became friends with Dan McCord, who eventually teamed with Gary Ormsby to form the McCord/Ormsby Funny Car team. While being a fan of the sport and loving the work of 'Blood and Nat [noted car painters Kenny Youngblood and Nat Quick], [I] drew the cars, then asked the drivers to sign them from Pomona to Fremont to Sacramento and OCIR.
"It was great fun, and the drivers were very receptive. The Pabst Blue Ribbon guys even asked [if I would]do another and send to them so they could present it to the people in Milwaukee.
"As a result of this artwork, it helped me become a gofer for Gordie Bonin when he drove the Hawaiian at Sacramento Raceway Park and later when he bacame '240 Gordie' [with] the Bubble Up car. I also got to work with Mike Miller and his car, Boredom Zero, which I still believe to this day to be the best name for a Funny Car. It was a lot of fun working and being with the guys back when. Even got to go to Kirby's paint shop and see the wall with every name and phone number, from Prudhomme to Garlits on it. From this, I now am doing sign work full time near Denison, Iowa, but I will always cherish the memories of doing these drawings and the reactions of the drivers and owners during those halcyon days of drag racing."
And our teachers told us no good could come of our obsession with drag racing …
OK, kids, I'll be back Tuesday (I promise!) with a new column. If you’re going to the Hot Rod Reunion this weekend in Bakersfield (and who isn't?), maybe I’ll see ya there. Well, if I ever finish these damned expense reports that is …
They may not have sported superchargers, but it's clear that, pardon the pun, injected Funny Cars have blown a lot of people away over the years, at least based on the outpouring of info that the last few columns has inspired.
I received a great e-mail from Jeff Foulk, who ran the Finagler Cougar flopper on the injected circuit in the late 1960s and early 1970s. He offered an interesting perspective on the whole blown-vs.-injected Funny Car comparison that I thought was well worth sharing.
"As a participant in the birth of the Funny Car era and a veteran member of the East Coast Fuel Funny Car Circuit, from '69 through '72, I am proud and happy to share our memories and knowledge with the younger fans. This was a unique and memorable time, and its history is the legacy of those of us who were lucky enough to have been in that place at that time.
"While there were always blown Funny Cars [Chrisman's Comet comes to mind], the injected cars were quicker and ruled the class up until the '68 Nationals at Indy, when tires and other developments came together to set the stage for the blown cars to take over. The great thing about that period of time was that almost anyone could build and race a car and be somewhat competitive and make money. You didn't need a ton of money, yours or a sponsor's.
"When my Finagler Cougar was a featured car in a '67 issue of Super Stock and Drag Illustrated magazine, one of the companion articles was about 'Jungle Jim' and his Nova Funny Car. They completely disassembled the car to detail the cost. The grand total, including the transporter, was $25, 000! For a topflight operation! While I didn't have that kind of dough invested in mine, I could have -- through sponsors and partnerships -- raised that kind of cash in that time period. Anyone with the initiative could do it back then. It didn't cost 4 million bucks to race a season. 'Jungle' obviously ran a lot more than 24 dates and made a lot more profit than can be earned today. The only reason more people didn't do it, I can only chalk up to a lack of imagination and self-confidence.
Here's a look at a partial schedule and points standings for the 1969 East Coast Fuel Funny Car Circuit.
"There were far more cars back then and a lot more opportunities to race for money. I dare say that on any given summer week during '67 through the '70s, there would be two to five Funny Car shows on the East Coast. I can't speak for the rest of the country, but I suspect that the scenario was similar, especially in the Midwest. The Funny Cars were new and exciting, and the fans couldn't get enough of them. The costs were not prohibitive; the promoters could book a good show and make money, and the fans just kept coming. There has never been a phenomenon in auto racing that I can compare it to. We just showed up and ran. We basically made it up as we went along. Run what you brung was the basic 'rule.'
"As the blown cars slowly assumed preeminence, those of us who chose (or had) to stay with injectors collected on the various injected circuits that blossomed to fill the gaps in the promoters' budgets. Injected circuits were a good deal all around. The promoters could afford a multicar show, and the racers could still make some money. The ECFFC traveled all up and down the East Coast, especially the South. In the '69 season, we would typically show up with 12 or more cars and qualify an eight-car show. In the '70 season, the circuit split, with the top eight guys booked in and eight of the older or slower cars running a second circuit. This is the role we played through '70 and '71, although we filled in on the big circuit quite a few times with pretty good results.
"I will share with you a memory that might illuminate the extent of the original Funny Car craze. In late May or early June of 1966, we entered a race at York U.S. 30 Dragway in York, Pa. This was one of the nicest tracks around in those days. We were running our '66 Mustang in C/XS with our 348-cubic-inch motor and four Webber carbs. The NHRA had just instituted the X/S classes that year. C/XS was on gas and was a little like Pro Stock, except the rules were a little looser.
"Just about every name car was there, with the exception of 'Jungle Jim' and 'Dyno Don.' Everybody ran -- no qualifying -- with the class winners coming back to run for an overall eliminator as was the custom back then. I don't know how many entries they had, but it seemed like there were 100 Funny Cars of all descriptions there. The stands were packed to overflowing, and the feel was electric.
"One of the most anticipated early-round races was between Ronnie Sox, in the Sox & Martin stretched Barracuda, and Huston Platt, in his Chevy. Platt had recently become the first Chevy-powered car in the eights. The car was a steel body, completely stripped, with no windows. It was either a Chevelle or Chevy II; I'm not sure which. The car was the most stone-crude piece I ever saw; calling it spartan would be kind. They left even, but Soxie stood the 'Cuda straight up on the rear bumper. He stayed with it, brought it back down, and won the round. Towing back the return road, Ronnie was struggling to steer the car because he had bent the front axle and smashed the header collectors down to the thickness of a cigarette pack! The crowd was literally falling out of the stands over the run. A while later, Eddie Schartman also stood his flip-top Comet straight up. The next morning, Eddie and his crew were standing in the motel parking lot, scratching their heads wondering what to do about that. The wheelie bar probably evolved from that night's events.
"This was during the period before bleach or wet burnouts. A lot of guys were using rosin or liquid traction compound. If you dissolved rosin with some nitro, you came up with a sticky liquid, the precursor of VHT. The burnout ritual entailed three burnouts through the rosin, which worked up the crowd but took quite a while to perform. As a result, the races took a long time to play out. Nobody seemed to mind; they were eating it up. We left at 3:30 a.m., and class eliminations were still going. From 8 o'clock on, the only cars to run were Funny Cars. I felt sorry for those poor local racers who spent a long evening in the staging lanes. It was quite a night."
Wow. Thanks, Jeff, for an outstanding and detailed look back at that wondrous time. I almost felt as if (and definitely wish) I were there!
Foulk's Finagler Cougar, by the way, is being restored. I also received photos and e-mails from Susie and Dave Koffel reminding me of their great injected car, The Flintstone Flyer, which recently was restored.
"As the 'family historian,' I wanted to pass on a few pictures and articles on our original AXS '67 and '68 injected Barracuda Funny Car that we restored and debuted in 2008," wrote Susie. "It won the XS class at the 1968 NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, 1968 NHRA Springnationals at Englishtown, and finally the 1968 NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. In fact, that Indy win was the last run in the car for Dave as he had already joined the Chrysler race group, and they let him finish his race season.
"Last year, the restored car was featured at the Glenmoor Gathering Concours, along with our two original gasser Flintstone Flyers, and then was in Hot Rod magazine with a six-page feature. The photo shoot for that article was at the Glenmoor Gathering, and we enjoyed a reunion of 14 members of our old crew at the same time. This year, it will be in the Concours d'Elegance of America at St. John's in Michigan (the new location of the Meadowbrook Concours). It's hard to imagine that a Funny Car is now Concours material!"
The interesting car name Flintstone Flyer was coined during Koffel's original gasser days. Being a rather stocky German in a 4400-pound Packard race car, one of the team's old crew members said he looked like Fred Flintstone and the car would be something right out of Bedrock, and the name stuck.
OK, enjoy the weekend. There's more injected Funny Car stuff in the future, including a chat with Ron Pellegrini, who was one of the founding members of UDRA and a circuit director for the Funny Car circuit.
On Thursday, Darrell Gwynn will be in Reading, where he and his father, Jerry, along with NHRA Board Chairman Dallas Gardner, former NHRA VP Steve Gibbs, former NHRA Division Director Darwin Doll, Kenny Koretsky, and Jack Redd will be inducted into the Maple Grove Raceway Walk of Fame, but perhaps just as special for Darrell will be getting a chance to reminisce about a spectacular fall evening 20 years ago, when the NHRA and NASCAR communities came together to benefit him in one of the wildest softball games you'll ever witness.
I was fortunate to have been in attendance that wild and woolly night when a group of NHRA all-stars staged an improbable last-inning comeback to beat its circle-track rivals, 21-20. The evening would have been a metaphoric home run no matter the outcome because more than $150,000 was raised to benefit Gwynn, whose spectacular racing career had been ended in a horrific crash Easter Sunday, but it felt a whole lot better when the NHRA team was celebrating on the field at Reading Municipal Stadium than if the good ol' boys had been the ones whooping it up.
I've written about this event previously in this column, but it's worth revisiting, and I dug up some cool photos from the evening that should make it worth your while.
The Darrell Gwynn Benefit Softball Challenge was held Sept. 13, a cool, crisp Thursday evening before qualifying was scheduled to start the following day at the Keystone Nationals. The NASCAR gang also had a race close by that weekend, in Dover, Del., as I recall, so the turnout from both sides was astonishing in number and caliber as both sides answered the call to aid one of their fallen peers.
Dick LaHaie (top) played like a kid in the game, with two doubles and four RBIs. Kenny Bernstein (above), who was instrumental in recruiting NASCAR players, was 2 for 6 with two RBIs.
The NHRA lineup included Kenny Bernstein, John Force, Tommy Johnson Jr., Art Hendey, Dan Pastorini, Scott Kalitta, Koretsky, Dick LaHaie, Mark Oswald, Richard Hartman, Jim Head, Freddie Neely, Don Prudhomme, Tim Grose, and Darrell's father, Jerry. The NASCAR lineup featured Bill Elliott, Kyle Petty, Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan, Derrick Cope, Michael Waltrip, Sterling Marlin, Geoff and Brett Bodine, Rick Wilson, Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, Chad Little, and Ken Schrader. Both teams had an all-star "bench" (see box score).
After a three-hour autograph session, the teams took the field under the lights in front of an estimated 13,000 fans, almost double what the 7,200-seat facility was built to accommodate.
Gwynn, who was paralyzed in the accident and lost the lower part of his left arm and much mobility in his right, was wheeled out onto the field to toss out the ceremonial first pitch, and his brave effort was immortalized in what has become an iconic photo taken by Reading Eagle newspaper photographer Richard J. Patrick. It was an awesome moment.
No doubt inspired by Gwynn, NHRA jumped to a 4-0 lead in the first inning on the back of former NFL quarterback-turned-Top Fuel-racer Pastorini, who showed that he was as good with a bat as a pigskin by walloping a home run to left center.
The NASCAR troops dinged Prudhomme for six runs in the second and two more each in the fourth and fifth while keeping the NHRA gang at four with Irvan's solid pitching and good fielding. The NHRA drivers came alive in the bottom of the fifth with a seven-run inning manufactured by singles and NASCAR fielding errors to forge ahead, 11-10.
NASCAR tied the score in the top of the sixth and added two more in the seventh and three more in the eighth, and the outcome looked bleak again for the straight-liners, down 16-11 in the middle of the eighth.
John Force slugged an eighth-inning home run to tie the score at 16 at the end of eight.
Force, who had taken over catching for Papa Gwynn, got run over twice in the top of the eighth, by Allison and Little, but got his revenge, powering a homer to left center. Inspired, the NHRA troops again rallied and tied the score at 16. NASCAR, though, responded with a four-run top-of-the-ninth on Waltrip's grand slam to lead 20-16. Game over? Hardly.
Irvan was tiring. Force walked. After Bernstein flied out, T.J. singled. Hendey and Pastorini walked, Force scoring. Hartman singled in Johnson and Oswald (running for Hendey), Kalitta walked, loading the bases with the score 20-19 for NASCAR. Grose popped out for NHRA's second out.
Two outs, based loaded. It doesn't get any better than that. Koretsky, the home-state hero whose sponsor, Sunoco, was the Keystones sponsor, seized the hero's role, roping a single to left center, scoring Pastorini and Hartman and giving NHRA a dramatic 21-20 win.
Koretsky, T.J., and Pastorini all went 3 for 5 in the game -- Pastorini had four RBIs, as did LaHaie -– but everyone left a winner.