For the past five months, we’ve been talking almost exclusively about Funny Cars here – I know, #FirstWorldProblems, right? – so I thought I’d take a look back at a place that was responsible for many of them, Don Kirby’s Funny Car “supermarket,” a one-stop shop for Funny Car teams in the 1970s.
Located in the Los Angeles suburb of Bellflower, Calif., Don Kirby Custom Paint was much more than just the final stop for a plastic fantastic on its way to the dragstrip. From the multibuilding facility spread along Clark Avenue, Kirby and his cohorts, who included noted chassis builder John Buttera, airbrush aces Nat Quick and Kenny Youngblood, and a crew of versatile jack-of-all-trades, not only could tin, paint, letter, and mount your Funny Car body, but they also could make bodies, too. You could literally haul your rolling chassis into the shop and come back to get a completed car instead of having to drag it from specialist to specialist.
Don Kirby, laying on the color
Kirby's team not only built the bodies but could custom modify them, too.
Kirby, whose wild Beach City Corvette is still regarded as one of the slickest Funny Cars ever, could customize the body any way you wanted it – longer, shorter, chopped – and then do everything else needed to make it race-ready, including adding the Lexan glass and, with the help of neighbor Bob Behrens, adding the tinwork. Kirby would usually handle the painting himself, then have Quick or Youngblood add the flourishes, such as realistic grilles and headlights, lettering, and pinstriping. A bare fiberglass body cost $550 (compare to $35,000 for a carbon-fiber wonder today!), and by the time it was rolling out the door, your bill was well south of $2,000.
The signs out front touted the shop as a Corvette specialist, where tender fiberglass repairs could be done to America’s finest sports car and custom painting (Kandys! Pearls! Flames!) was offered, but on any given day, the hot rods parked out front and inside were hotter than any street car.
The Insider’s indispensable photo ace, Steve Reyes, shot the accompanying photos at Kirby and Buttera’s place in December 1971 for an article that ran in the March 1972 issue of Drag Racing USA.
“The shop was located just a few miles from my house in North Long Beach, so it was no big deal to swing by there and check out who was getting a new body or paint/lettering on their race car,” he remembers. “In the winter, you could run into anyone and everyone in drag racing: Crew chiefs, drivers, and owners wandered in and out of the shop to check the progress of their new ride. I first met Billy Meyer at Kirby’s; he was zooming around on a minibike in front of the shop. Kirby asked me if I knew the long-haired kid on the minibike, then called Billy over and introduced me to the smiling kid with the Texas drawl.
Nat Quick (above) and Kenny Youngblood (below), doing their thing.
“Nat Quick was the in-house lettering and graphics designer. Nat was something else, quite the character. He had an old mattress he kept at the shop, and he would sleep in the shop so he would be there bright and early to finish a job, and he seemed to always be late finishing a job. I have photos of him finishing the lettering on the Brand X AA/FC in the pits at Dallas. Kirby and Nat were grateful for the ink I had gotten for the shop, and so they designed and painted my first tour van in 1972. Kirby painted, and Nat did the graphics. While Nat worked on my van, he dragged his mattress in the van and slept in there at night.”
“Kirby would call me over to help Nat if he got behind,” recalled Youngblood, who originally dreamed of designing cars in Detroit before drag racing stole his heart. “Nat was a tremendous talent, very meticulous, which made it slower.”
The love and detail that both Quick and Youngblood put into each car – making sure that the grilles looked like their factory counterparts, making sure that the headlights looked realistic, with depth and reflection – is amazing, especially considering the volatile nature of the cars back then.
“Because they were race cars, we always knew they were ‘terminal’; they could last five seconds,” said Youngblood. “But it never bothered me if one burned up because it was part of the drill and, in a way, job security.”
I don’t know when Kirby and company closed down their Funny Car factory, but I’ll never forget the time that Leslie Lovett dragged me to Tom Stratton’s paint shop not far from the Pomona track before the 1983 Winternationals, which is probably the closest I got to a similar experience. I was still pretty new on the job and not long out of the fandom where every trip to the Winternationals provided a bounty of new paint schemes to ogle, but at Stratton’s were three sneak previews: Roland Leong’s Hawaiian Punch Dodge, Gary Burgin’s Orange Baron Camaro, and John Force’s Mountain Dew Camaro, all in various stages of completeness. I shot photos as Stratton lettered Burgin’s car, amazed at his precision and steady hand. Both Leslie and Tom are gone now, but I’ll always remember that magical day.
The idea of a Funny Car factory was reborn decades later thanks to the Nostalgia Funny Car craze. Donnie Couch, who has worked on and helped tune cars for some of the biggest names in the sport, created the West Coast Funny Car Factory in Whittier, Calif.
The services of Couch -- who like a generation of future crewmembers, crew chiefs, and pit rats hung out at Kirby’s shop -- and his band of experts are on the other end of the race car preparation spectrum from those that Kirby and company offered. A racer can bring a completed car to the factory, and Couch and crew would set up the car, everything from engine and clutch combinations to chassis tweaking. They have also gone to the track with racers, helping them to either get their license or showing them how to run and maintain the car.
“For example, Steve Romanazzi asked for our help; he’d been out there three years and had never qualified," said Couch. "We went through his car, put the setup on it, and took him to the March Meet. He qualified No. 1 and won the race. We haven’t had that kind of success with everyone, of course, but everyone we’ve helped has seemed happy.”
Even though the team does not build chassis or mount bodies, it has a complete network of people who can and happily recommends them to potential racers.
And finally, through the magic of Google Street View, I input the address (17542 Clark Avenue) to get a look at what became of Kirby's. You can see the before-and-after photos below. Sad to see Funny Car bodies replaced with a minivan ...
I hope you all saw the reveal last Sunday on NHRA.com (or Saturday on the FOX show) of our Top 20 Funny Cars catch-up. We unveiled Nos. 18 to 20 to catch up to Tony Pedregon’s separate list that he began a few weeks ago, and I thought it would be interesting to take a look at what maybe went into the rankings. (I'll do one of these every five or so reveals, just to get the vibe from fans, so feel free to send along your thoughts on the picks.)
Here’s the fan vote
18. Jim White/Hawaiian Dodge (1991)
19. Gene Snow Rambunctious Challenger (1970)
20. Jack Chrisman Comet (1967)
Tony Pedregon’s top 20
18. Al Segrini Black Magic Vega (1974-75)
19. Dale Armstrong/Mike Kase Speed Racer (1980-81)
20. Tom Prock Detroit Tiger Monza (1975-76)
And here’s the video that ‘splains it all, followed by my thoughts.
Several of you wrote to express surprise that Snow’s Rambunctious car was ranked so low because, for those of you who were fans back then, the car was a stone-cold killer and the first to run 200 mph. And, of course, it carried “the Snowman" to NHRA’s first season championship in 1970. I had it rated slightly higher on my personal list. In case you missed it, you can read more about the car in this column I did earlier this year about that important 1970 season. For the record, the Insider Nation ranked this car 15th in the poll I posted two weeks ago.
Being a longtime Roland Leong fan (plus it's our shared birthday Sunday; “Hau`oli La Hanau,” Roland!), I wish there had been a way in this Top 20 poll (or maybe something parallel) to salute his body of work rather than individual cars. The Hawaiian Funny Cars were staples of the class for three decades and known to every drag racing fan from coast to coast. The Hawaiian Punch car on the list probably had the best visibility due to its sweep of the 1991 U.S. Nationals, barrier-breaking 290-mph pass, and better television coverage, but I wonder in hindsight if one of those bitching early Chargers, with the recognizable bamboo lettering (as remembered in this column), might have gotten a better response from fans who know the name but not the 1991 car. Interestingly, the Insider poll also ranked this car No. 18.
The Chrisman car on the list was not part of my personal top 20, but anyone who saw it run in 1967 won’t forget the dizzying speed performance it exhibited. Chrisman was such a big part of those formative Funny Car years – the stock-bodied ’65 Comet that blew everyone’s mind in Indy, the first-gen flip-top Mercury of 1966, and this car – but I guess it’s not surprising that the car did not have the mass appeal of some of the others on the list given the wide demographics of a general poll. The older/nostalgia-skewing demo of this column’s readers ranked it No. 17.
So here's a quick recap:
|Jim White/Hawaiian Dodge
|Gene Snow Rambunctious Challenger
|Jack Chrisman Comet
Pedregon’s choices have been interesting because he wasn’t confined to ranking on a predetermined top 20, and they reflect a personal taste rather than also trying to wrangle in considerations about the cars’ impact on the class or on-track success.
I, too, loved the Detroit Tiger Monza – I always thought Monzas were some of the best-looking Funny Cars – and Prock and Poncho Rendon’s beautiful example was a showstopper. Being a huge (huge!) Armstrong fan, I was glad to see him acknowledged for his work on Kase’s Speed Racer. The car certainly had its share of troubles (including that nasty fire at the Springnationals), but the fact that “AA Dale” drove the car to a 5.89 national record run in his final race in the car (1981 World Finals) before heading into what would be a long stint tuning for Kenny Bernstein showed us all what he was capable of, a fact that he showed us over and over for two decades. And, of course, after having interviewed Segrini for a recent column and noting his dismay over not making the fan-vote Top 20, it was cool that he made Pedregon’s list with the Black Magic Vega.
We’re going to unveil No. 17 in the same fashion this week, first on Saturday’s FOX qualifying show from Topeka, then on NHRA.com Sunday morning in case you missed it or don’t have FS1. As a little bit of a teaser, the No. 17 car made one of the great passes in class history and was a bit higher on my personal list but lower (No. 19) on the Insider poll. Ah, the suspense!
Thanks to everyone for voting in my little straw poll last week to get the Insider Nation’s take on the Top 20 Funny Cars list. For the most part, your voting aligned pretty closely with the overall voting – you both picked the same car as No. 1, as well as exactly nailing the Nos. 5, 12, and 18 cars – though there were some interesting discrepancies later in the list. In fact, there was one “modern” (post-1970s) car that you guys ranked 10 spots lower than the “real” vote. Interesting!
Obviously, I can’t give away too much, but – and probably not surprising given the typical topics here – you guys didn’t have a post-1970s car in your top-10 voting, which is not the case for the overall vote.
Nearly 1,500 of you chose to vote, and a good group also heeded my request for explanations, some of which can be found below.
Chuck Dewandeler: “I chose [Kenny Bernstein’s 1984 Budweiser King] car because of the corporate sponsorship swing. Obviously, ‘the Snake’ had Mattel, but it seems to me the Bud car may have opened corporate eyes to bring other monies not already in the sport to the track.”
Jerry Haynes: “For me, far and away, ‘Jungle’ was the most entertaining, innovative, and interesting personification of a Funny Car racer. He seemed to understand and appreciate what fans came to the races to see. And yeah, we were ‘Jungle’ fans even before Pam came along. Almost always had a smile, even when things were going in the crapper. You simply couldn’t wait to see what was next with JJ. Pat Foster was, simply put, an all-American badass. Pat was also and most definitely one cool cat because as a kid, I cannot ever remember seeing him be rude to anyone. He seemed calm and always in control of the situation. He built beautiful cars, and then entrusted his own life in his work. He was a driver that built the race cars, so he could drive the race cars. How cool is that? I miss both these guys, but 'Jungle' had to have my vote, simply because he made me feel that he appreciated my being there.”
Mark Williams: “My vote goes to ‘the Snake’s’ ’70 ’Cuda, along with the ‘Mongoose’ Duster. Why? Every kid had one, and some of us were lucky enough to see them run in the day.”
Lewis Cathey: “Don Nicholson Eliminator I 1966 Comet. It set the basic design: tube chassis and one-piece body.”
Jeff Sayer: “I was torn between the Danny O.-driven Mustang and Ed McCulloch’s Duster but went with the Northwest hero, Ed.”
Anthony Carpinelli: “To pick one Funny Car is very difficult, but my pick is Jim Dunn's 1972 ’Cuda. I was 10 in 1970 and remember my favorite then, ‘the Snake’s’ Hot Wheels ‘Cuda. My family was a Chrysler family, so ‘Cudas were my favorite vehicle (still one of my favorites). So why the pick for Jim Dunn’s 1972 ‘Cuda over ‘the Snake’? It was rear-engined! And actually won a national event. I remember when I saw ‘Big Daddy’s’ rear-engine dragster on the cover of Hot Rod. I just assumed that all the nitro cars would follow suit, including the Funny Cars. I really thought that rear-engine Funny Cars were going to be the future.”
Chris Williams: “I voted for Jim Dunn's rear-engine ’Cuda because it was unusual, successful (relatively), and in Funny Car Summer. I remember the exact theater I saw the movie in. My ongoing love of Funny Cars started in 1971, so that movie was too cool! I think ‘Snake's’ Monza is actually most deserving, but I don't have an attachment to it like I have for Dunn's car."
Lester Ketch: “It should be a Top 100 list. I also think that No. 21 should not be a Funny Car, but the Snake vs. Mongoose Hot Wheels race set that introduced so many children (including myself) to drag racing. Not only did it introduce children to drag racing, but also mainstream advertising, and made me force ABC Wide World of Sports on my family if a drag race was on.”
Terry Spencer: “This was a very tough list to pick a winner from, especially given the historic nature of cars like Nicholson’s Comet and a few other groundbreaking cars. Having said that, I voted for Dale Pulde’s War Eagle Trans Am. This car carried no major sponsorship, but Dale kept it winning and looking beautiful and professional. Few have done so much with so little and managed to build a huge fan base along the way. All of Dale’s cars have been top-notch and true to the spirit of the class in its golden era. As an aside, my favorite War Eagle was Dale’s Buick Somerset Regal. A true original and just a completely cool-looking car.”
Robert Nielsen: “You chose to limit the selection of cars to those that came after the time NHRA officially recognized the class. That means the car I would have chosen, the Sachs & Sons Mercury Comet of Jack Chrisman, is not eligible, so I had to choose another car. To be quite honest, the Mickey Thompson/Danny Ongais 1969 Mach 1 Mustang is an extremely close second favorite for a great number of reasons. I have to admit a loyalty to Ford Motor Company. My first car was a 1956 Ford, and my first real race car was a 1963 Ford Falcon that I raced from 1966 to 1974. In 1969, I also had a blue 1969 Mach 1 Mustang that looked very much like the Thompson/Ongais car (sans big rear tires, zoomie headers, and blower sticking out of the hood)! I have always been a Danny Ongais fan! I believe he has to be one of the greatest race car drivers of all time. I am also a huge fan of Mickey Thompson. Thompson was an innovator. It did not matter whether it was with respect to drag racing, land speed racing, Indy car racing, or off-road racing. He left his mark wherever he raced! The 1969 Mach 1 Mustang is an excellent example of his ability to be the innovator that others would follow. His 1969 Mach 1 Mustang Funny Car incorporates a number of these innovative changes, including a new chassis design and the use of zoomie headers. It is without a doubt, hands-down the best Funny Car ever!”
So, who's going to be No. 1? You're going to have to wait until November to find out!
Reaching back a couple of columns to my piece on Al Segrini and the wonderful Black Magic Funny Cars, Kenny Youngblood reminisced about the car in an email to me and Lewis Bloom earlier this week.
“Back in the early days of Funny Car (the late ‘60s and ‘70s), a greater emphasis was placed on appearance; painters of the day would go to great lengths (using candy colors and intricate designs) to create rolling works of art. The Black Magic Vega would be for me the all-around best-looking graphic design I ever did,” he wrote. “In their August 1974 issue, Super Stock & Drag Illustrated [magazine] said of this car, ‘Artistically speaking, the Black Magic Funny Car is probably the finest ever created.’ (Prudhomme's Army graphics would be my other favorite, but for different reasons.)
The master at work, 1971 (Steve Reyes photo)
“Al Segrini contacted me to do the design. As an artist, it's most rewarding to work for clients who care as much about how their cars look as how they perform. Segrini was one of those clients; he wanted to knock everyone over when they saw it and win Best Appearing Car. The project had all the right ingredients; I couldn't wait to get my hands on it! I love working with black-based schemes (as black makes everything 'pop'); it was a cool name, and the slope-nosed Vega bodies were sleek in appearance.
"The late Tom Stratton and I worked together on the actual paint job, at Tom's shop in Pomona, with the lettering and airbrush work being applied in the garage of my home at that time, in Orange, Calif.
“Al loved the design. I could always tell how good we did on a design by how widely it would be copied (as ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of thievery’); the zig-zag Black Magic theme and colors were soon showing up everywhere you looked. Prior to this, car-magazine publishers would not put black cars on their covers; the Black Magic was on the cover of three magazines in the same month.”
“The 24x48-inch painting, 'Magic In Motion' (depicting the car at the end of a smoky burnout), was done in 1974 and was one of the two paintings (along with one of James Warren) that I first published and offered to the mass market in 1978. The painting was purchased a few years back as a birthday gift for ATI's Jim Beattie, the car's original owner."
Great stuff; thanks, Kenny.
OK, Funny Car fans, that's it for this week. Watch for the reveal of Nos. 18-20 on our Top 20 list on Saturday's FOX show or Sunday on NHRA.com.
Fan voting ended earlier this week in the Top 20 Funny Cars poll, and we’ll begin to reveal the results in the very near future. It has been a fun exercise, especially the creation of the list and everything that went into it, as well as hearing some of your comments about the list’s makeup and your picks to win.
Thousands of votes were cast by a wide audience of fans who no doubt included history buffs such as the regular readers of this column and some who might know only the names and not the histories of the cars/drivers, so the results reflect an overall consensus.
If you’ve been around this column long enough, you might remember the fun we had in the summer of 2008, when readers voted in what I called the Favorite Race Car Ever poll. I broke it down into segments, by car type and decade (Exhibition Cars, Early Door Cars/Roadsters, Early Dragsters, Early Funny Cars, 1970s Top Fuelers, 1970s Funny Cars, then a catchall 1980s and Beyond for all classes), then took the top vote-getters from each group and put them together for a final vote-off. If you go into the Blog Archive widget at right and set the Insider Wayback Machine to July and August 2008, you can relive those results, which is an interesting exercise because many on our Top 20 Funny Cars list were also part of that voting.
Anyway, I thought it would be fun to get a straw poll from only the Insider faithful to see how this group of experts would have rated the top 20. I’ve hidden the post-vote results to keep things interesting, but I’ll definitely share them in the future. So have at it, and be sure to drop me a line explaining your vote (click on my byline above).
We’ll be unveiling the first results from the poll next Saturday, during the Summit Racing Equipment NHRA Southern Nationals, first on the FOX TV show and then immediately thereafter on NHRA.com. If you’ve been following along, Tony Pedregon, the two-time Funny Car world champ and now TV analyst, has already started rolling out his own Top 20 list, and we’ll sync up with him in Atlanta, where he will reveal his No. 18 pick, which means we’ll unveil our Nos. 18-20 at the same time.
In case you missed his first two picks, his No. 20 was the Detroit Tiger Monza of Tom Prock and Pancho Rendon, and his No. 19 was Mike Kase’s Dale Armstrong-driven Speed Racer – both pretty good picks. (Pedregon’s picks are not restricted to the Top 20 list in the fan vote.)
After that, we’ll reveal one new driver on each Saturday of each national event weekend, culminating at the fall Las Vegas event, where we’ll reveal No. 3 and be down to the final two. We’ll have a big buildup to the announcement of No. 1 at the season-ending Auto Club NHRA Finals.
Thanks for playing.