We began this whole odyssey into the early days of Funny Car with the announcement a few weeks ago that NHRA would be saluting 50 years of Funny Cars this season, with the starting point for the celebration being the 1966 season, when NHRA handed out its first Funny Car eliminator trophy to Eddie Schartman and his Ohio-based Mercury Comet at the 1966 World Finals in Tulsa, Okla.
As we have discussed the last few weeks, the roots of the class are well-defined in general yet somewhat murky in absolutes, so it’s time to bring it all back to that 1966 season, where some better clarity exists, and who better to help than “Fast Eddie” himself?
I caught up with lifelong Ohioan Schartman, now 78, earlier this week at his winter home in Florida to talk about those early days of the class and his involvement in it.
First, a little background. Schartman, who was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2012, actually grew up in a dirt-track-racing family, where his father, Ed Sr., was a regular competitor. Being around racing instilled in young Eddie a love not only of racing but also of all things mechanical, and because the family owned a wrecking yard, he got plenty of hands-on experience at tearing apart cars. In school, he devoured the lessons from every shop class he took, all aimed at achieving his ultimate goal of becoming a racer.
He built his first drag car, a flathead-powered '40 Ford, when he was 14. By the time he graduated from Berea High School in 1956, he was already a skilled racer. He journeyed from Cleveland to Flagler Beach, Fla., for Daytona Speed Week in a street-driven ’56 Chevy with a stroked-out 338-cid engine and won everything in sight, and shortly afterward, he set the NHRA B/Gas record with a full-race ‘55 Chevy.
(Above) "The Ugly Duckling" (Below) Eddie Schartman's A/FX Comet
Schartman went to work for the Cleveland-based Jackshaw Chevrolet dealership, which had a pretty good pipeline to Chevy high-performance parts and was frequented by Chevy’s biggest doorslammer star, “Dyno Don” Nicholson. Schartman was running a ‘62 Chevy out of the dealership that regularly sent the local Ford drivers packing, and the two became friends, which led to a job offer from Nicholson, who asked Schartman to move to Atlanta and build engines for him in 1964.
Soon, Nicholson got a Mercury factory deal and a new A/FX Comet station wagon known lovingly but unflatteringly as “The Ugly Duckling.” Schartman took over the wheel of Nicholson's '62 Chevy – for 50 percent of the winnings – and made a killing down South.
Nicholson’s new bosses at Mercury, however, did not appreciate still seeing his name on a Chevrolet, so when Nicholson got a new Comet coupe in 1965, Schartman got the Comet wagon. Schartman claimed the Mr. Stock Eliminator win at the 1965 NASCAR Winter Drags, but he had grown tired of working for someone else and handing over half of his winnings, and his relationship with Nicholson had become quite rocky. Mercury so valued its young racer that when he demanded his own car, it gave him a Comet – and a lucrative (for the time) $5,000 sponsorship from the Cleveland-area Mercury dealers – albeit with a wedge motor instead of the cammers bestowed upon others on the factory deal to finish 1965.
While all of this was going on for Schartman, his bosses at Mercury had bigger fish to fry. When the Dodge and Plymouth racers began showing up in 1965 with radical altered-wheelbase cars, their better weight distribution and acid-dipped, anything-goes bodies gave them a huge advantage over cars like Nicholson’s Comet, so Nicholson followed suit, offsetting his chassis and adding an 18-percent engine setback, but when his bosses at Mercury saw it, they were not pleased, to say the least, and by some accounts were ready to wash their hands of this whole drag racing business.
Fortunately, Mercury Racing boss Fran Hernandez and right-hand-man Al Turner were there to save the day and, in the process, show the way forward for the class. According to most, Hernandez had his hands full with other factory programs, and it was Turner, a longtime gas dragster racer who also ran a machine shop at night to fund his own racing efforts, who took the football and ran with it.
Knowing that a car that didn’t reasonably resemble a street car would never pass muster, Turner found inspiration in the famed Mooneyham & Sharp 554 Ford of Gene Mooneyham and Al Sharp. Externally, the car looked like a pretty stock ’34 Ford coupe, but beneath the body was a tube chassis with a center-mounted driver position and a blown nitro Hemi whose injectors were barely visible at the base of the windshield.
Turner went as far as to build a 1/25th-scale model out of balsa wood to show his bosses for approval – touting especially its stock appearance – and received their blessing. He looked homeward, calling on brothers Ron and Gene Logghe – whose Detroit-area Logghe Stamping Co. had begun to make a name for itself with dragster chassis – to build the chromoly frame with a stock 116-inch wheelbase and stock proportions. Multiadjustable shock absorbers were added in what Turner said was the first use of coil-over shocks on a drag car. The Logghes were sworn not only to secrecy but also had to agree not to make a similar chassis available to other racers for one year.
Turner worked with the Ford design studio to create a clay buck of a ’66 Comet body, which was then delivered to Plastigage Custom Fabrication of Jackson, Mich. The first bodies were incredibly heavy – the target weight was 250 pounds – and were rejected and had to be remade. Still, even with a Plexiglas windshield, they were prohibitively heavy because the original design called for the bodies to be bolted to the chassis and then lifted off for between-rounds servicing. According to Gene Logghe’s son, John, it was his uncle Ron who came up with the idea of hinging the body in the back, creating the “flopper” as we know it today. Drag racing’s “Tin Man,” Al Bergler, fabricated the aluminum floor, firewalls, wheelwells, and interior panels.
The Ford 427 SOHC cammer engine had low-stack Hilborn injectors that hid nicely beneath the body (the cars would not be supercharged until 1967). The cammer was mated to a three-speed manual transmission for its initial passes in South Florida in late 1965, but Nicholson was having problems hitting the shift points and kept overrevving the engine, so an automatic transmission with a 4,000-rpm stall torque converter was substituted. The Logghe brothers later created a ratchet shifter that made things even easier.
The flip-top Comet’s debut, at the AHRA Winternationals at Southern California’s Irwindale Raceway, was memorable but for the wrong reasons. The front grille caved in on the car’s maiden voyage, triggering the body latch and sending the Comet body soaring into the SoCal sky. Hayden Proffitt, another of Mercury’s California aces, helped Turner load the remains onto his flatbed truck and burn it to keep it from falling into the hands of the competition.
The next edition of the body (with the latch now reversed) was sent through the Ford wind tunnel, which highlighted the need for a spoiler beneath the front bumper, which solved the problem, and Nicholson went on to great success with the car, but without incident, as he also flipped the second car while match racing back east.
Jack Chrisman also got one of the new cars (though his was a "convertible" version, which later burned to the ground), as did the Colorado-based Kenz & Leslie team (who also kited one of their early cars), and, of course, Schartman.
The Schartman-Nicholson rivalry was intense in 1966 and 1967. (Above) "Fast Eddie" beat "Dyno Don" at the 1966 World Finals to claim NHRA's first Funny Car win.
Schartman will never forget the first ride in his new flip-top Comet, in December 1965 at Motor City Dragway. Turner had called him to the track, telling him only that his new car for 1966 was ready.
“I walked in there, looked at the car, and said, ‘What the hell is this?’ " he recalled. “It was a dragster with a body on it and the driver in the back seat and not the front seat, where you belong. I told them, ‘I can’t drive something like that.’ My car would run 125 [mph], but these things would do more than 160. He just said, ‘Well, that’s your baby. Get in.’ They were a handful; they never wanted to go straight. On my first pass, I went 166 mph and took out the [finish-line] lights. It took me several runs to get the hang of it, and, like any drag racer back then, you got used to the speed and loved it. Those cars weren’t like anything else out there, and once we got out there, the demand from the tracks and fans to see those cars was incredible. The phone was always ringing off the hook.”
Mercury had hired nitro-tuning veteran Roy Steffey to help Schartman in 1966, but it wasn’t a partnership that lasted long due to – how shall I say it politely? – “philosophical differences.” Schartman ran 80 to 85 match race dates a year – he also made innumerable appearances at car shows and Boy Scout events on behalf of Mercury – beginning in the West in the winter, then concentrating on the Midwest and East Coast, winning everywhere he went, with Nicholson as his only real consistent threat in the performance department.
“We were definitely one another’s main competition, and unless we blew something up, there was a good chance we were going to win,” he said modestly. “Everyone was hand-grenading their engines trying to beat us because that was a big deal, but you also have to remember that we were running stock 427 blocks, too, that could only stand so much before blowing the crank out of the bottom. I knew just how much nitro I could put in there and keep the motor together, but if I had to put in over 90 percent, I was probably going to lose the motor.”
The 1966 NHRA Nationals featured dedicated classes for “funny cars” running in S/XS, A/XS, and B/XS. Schartman and his yellow RSE (Roy Steffey Enterprises) Mercury clinched the S/XS trophy with an 8.28 at 174.41 mph over Nicholson.
More than a month later, at the 1966 World Finals, the two types of Funny Cars were divided, with A/XS and B/XS running in a class known as Handicap Experimental Stock and S/XS cars running in a class designated then as Top Funny Car. Among those in competition against Schartman were Nicholson, Chrisman, Larry Reyes in the Kingfish, Maynard Rupp in his wild Gratiot Auto Supply Chevoom Chevelle, and the Kenz & Leslie Mercury. Again, Schartman trumped all, and again he defeated Nicholson for the money, running an 8.38 at 174.08 after Nicholson was forced to abort his run.
Gene Snow’s Rambunctious Dodge Dart, which had won in Comp in Indy running in the C/Fuel dragster class, won the X/S combo over Hubert Platt, who red-lighted in Dick Brannon’s Mustang, which gave Snow the right to meet Schartman in Sunday’s overall match. Snow, who was running considerably slower than Schartman on Saturday, red-lighted trying to make up the disadvantage.
Knowing that blowers were the next big thing, Schartman, who usually wintered in California with Chrisman, hired supercharger-savvy Californian “Famous Amos” Satterlee as his crew chief for 1967. He signed a major sponsorship deal with Air Lift and grabbed another piece of Funny Car history when he made what was said to be the first seven-second run in a stock-bodied car in April at Detroit Dragway. (Nicholson also reportedly laid claim to a similar accomplishment, and Schartman acknowledges that timing systems back then weren’t all that they are today and doesn’t put a lot of stock in those kind of "firsts.")
“I think it was a big deal in those days, especially for the factory guys,” Schartman said. “The bosses would say, ‘Schartman went this e.t., “Dyno,” you’d better get your ass in gear or you won’t get the good parts,’ but we were very competitive with each other those years.
This was a common sight in the late 1960s as Schartman toured extensively.
Schartman's Cougar sported a pedestal-type rear-deck wing for downforce.
“I remember in 1967, we were running Maple Grove [Raceway], and the car was going sideways in the lights because the back end was almost coming off the ground. We figured we had to get some weight on the back end, so one of the guys went to a hardware store and came back with some angle iron that we bolted onto the trunk of the car. It went straight and picked up 5 mph. We’d invented the [rear-deck] spoiler and didn’t even know it. We were going 190, and ‘Dyno’ was still in the 180s, and believe me, he heard about it.”
Schartman went on to win Orange County Int’l Raceway’s prestigious Manufacturers Funny Car Championship that year and also won Irwindale’s Grand Prix and Fremont Dragway’s Northern California Championship.
Major wins in 1968 with the Air Lift Rattler Cougar – which had a pedestal-style rear spoiler – included the AHRA Winternationals and Great Lakes Dragaway’s Night FC Championships, and he posted a runner-up behind Nicholson at the Stardust National Open.
As the speeds increased in the class, so did the accidents and fatalities, especially because anyone could buy a Funny Car chassis. Mercury and Ford, which had merged their racing efforts by this time, informed the factory teams late in 1968 that they were dropping their backing of the Funny Car class. Schartman, who already had sponsor and match race commitments for 1969 for two cars – with Arnie Behling in his ‘68 car – worked out a low-six-figure settlement that allowed him to run the 1969 season.
Schartman was part of the inaugural Winternationals Funny Car field in 1969 with an 8.32 and lost on a holeshot to Rich Siroonian, 8.45 to 8.39, in the first round. Although he was still tearing up the match race scene, he also lost in the first round at the Springnationals and the U.S. Nationals. After fouling against Bruce Larson in Indy, he finished the year with some match racing, then retired from the class.
Schartman switched to Pro Stock in 1970, first with a Cougar, then a Maverick.
Schartman was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2012.
Pro Stock was new to drag racing in 1970 and was a good fit for both Schartman and Nicholson. Schartman started the season with a Boss 429-powered Cougar but soon switched to a Maverick.
So used to winning in Funny Car, Schartman experienced little more than frustration in national event Pro Stock racing, finding the sledding tough against guys like Bill Jenkins, Ronnie Sox, and Bob Glidden. A low point certainly was his disqualification in tech at the 1972 Gatornationals, where his Ford Maverick was not allowed to run in Pro Stock because it had Mercury Comet taillights in it – same parent company, but not the same make. He was allowed to run in B/Gas in Modified eliminator and nearly rode the karma train to victory, losing only in the final round to Dennis Grove.
“The Modified guys were mad because they had to run a ‘professional’ driver, and I just began getting so many bad vibes about the whole Pro Stock thing that I decided I couldn’t run the national events anymore,” he said. “I just started running match races, but even that went bad in 1975 when I started getting rained out so much at match races. The rainout money was like $150, and I just couldn’t afford to do it anymore."
Schartman left racing but not cars, buying and selling cars wholesale, which led to the purchase of multiple dealerships and, later, NAPA Auto Parts stores.
Now retired from business and playing golf every day, Schartman looks back fondly and proudly on his years in the sport.
“We lived and died racing,” he said. “We didn’t do anything but work on our cars and find a place to go racing. It was a great life and left me with a lot of good memories.”
The history of the Funny Car class that we’re celebrating this year suffered a significant loss earlier this week with the passing of Jess Tyree, one of the drivers who was in on the ground floor of the class in 1966. Tyree died Monday of cancer. He was 80.
Where Dickie Harrell was “Mr. Chevrolet,” Tyree became a West Coast favorite as “Mr. Pontiac” with a long-running career in Pontiacs that began in Super Stock. He advanced to Factory Experimental and finally to Funny Car, where he competed until 1973. Although he was a West Coast product, Tyree came to national attention as part of the traveling Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars.
Tyree was born in Oklahoma – he and fellow Funny Car pioneer and traveling partner Jack Chrisman both hailed from Grove, Okla. (funny story later on that) – and moved to California in the mid-1940s. He fell in with the fast crowd, racing through the then-wide-open expanses of Southern California’s Orange County, where he first met Mickey Thompson, with whom he would become lifelong friends.
Before long, Tyree had gone legit, racing at the famed Airport Drags events in Santa Ana, Calif., in 1950, where he ran Chevys and Plymouths, but it wasn’t until late in the decade that he had his first Pontiac, a ’57 Chieftan Super Stocker, after impressing a Texas-based Wickenburg Pontiac team that sent him down the Pontiac path.
Tyree’s Chieftan ran well enough to get the attention of the factory, and he soon found himself on the Pontiac team along with its biggest star, Thompson, in whose ’62 Pontiac Catalina he won S/S class honors at the 1962 Winternationals and at that year’s Bakersfield March Meet as well as set a land-speed record for its class that year at Bonneville.
Pontiac Racing Director John DeLorean – yes, the same guy who later invented the gullwing sports car that bears his name and went “Back to the Future” – commissioned a Tempest for Tyree in 1963 through Santa Ana Pontiac dealer Bill Barry, and Tyree moved into the FX classes. Tyree also continued to run in the stocker classes with an A/S ’62 Catalina with which he set multiple NHRA records and collected several class wins.
When the Funny Car craze began in late 1965/early 1966, Tyree was all-in and stayed true to his Pontiac allegiance with an all-fiberglass Pontiac Firebird. That car was destroyed in November 1967, when it went airborne at the finish line at more than 170 mph at Tucson Dragway after a massive blower explosion.
Tyree suffered some burns and minor injuries in the crash but rebuilt for the 1968 season with another Firebird and became a regular on the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Funny Car Stars tour the following year and barnstormed the country with the series until 1972, his final year behind the wheel. Tyree hired David Ray for the 1973 season, then retired from racing at the end of the year.
As noted earlier, Tyree and Chrisman were from the same Oklahoma hometown, but even though they knew of their shared Oklahoma roots, they didn’t know just how close they were. In a 1997 interview with National Dragster, Tyree said that when the tour hit the central states, the two would separate and head for their families, not knowing they were headed to the same destination.
“I used to tell Jack I was going to see my father-in-law, and he would go see his sister,” said Tyree. “We both went to Grove, a town of maybe 3,000 people, and never once saw each other despite the fact that our two towing rigs would stand out in such a small town. In fact, I didn’t even know he went [to Grove] until the year he died. Our relatives lived less than a couple of miles apart, but I never ran into him.”
In addition to cars that he branded with “Mr. Pontiac,” Tyree’s cars flew the name of his business, Tyree Headers, which he started in the late 1950s and whose customers ranged from local bracket racers to superstar teams such as the Farkonas, Coil & Minick Chi-Town Hustler. Even though Tyree sold the business to his good friend Thompson in 1969, he and a small team continued to make heads for Pontiac racers and friends, including, most recently, Dale Armstrong and Don Prudhomme for some of their street cars.
Although he stayed involved with cars as a service manager at local dealerships, Tyree was on the drag racing sidelines for almost 20 years until his old B/FX Tempest resurfaced and he was given the chance to buy it in 1989. The car was pretty beat up and needed a new roof and quarterpanels but was race-ready within a few years, and Tyree began competing with it at nostalgia events and match races, running off an 8.60 index in the ANRA’s B/Gas category and claiming championships in 2005 and 2006. The really cool part is that Tyree brought his original crew -- Mike Leiby, Ted Beck, and Dale Williams – back to work on the car.
NHRA Funny Car champ “Fast Jack” Beckman, whose love of our sport’s history is well-known, got to know Tyree throughout the years, meeting him during autograph signings and at the NHRA Museum, and he gained a deep affection for the man, a bond that deepened and strengthened after Tyree was diagnosed with cancer. Beckman is a cancer survivor.
“I appreciate all of the pioneers of our sport, but Jess stood out in that he was still competitive and racing today,” said Beckman, who was fresh off a stout 3.89 testing run in Phoenix Thursday when we spoke. “He contacted me when he got diagnosed with cancer, and I saw him last at the [California] Hot Rod Reunion last year. He was 80 years old and worn down by chemo but loved driving so much that he still wanted to drive his race car. That’s how badass he was.
“I loved to talk to him about his days on the Coke Cavalcade and what it was like to run so many dates as a booked-in car. Today, when we run a race, it's three days, and we’re guaranteed to get at least four qualifying runs to get paid. Back then, they also had to put on a show; it was not so much about winning but about putting on a show for the fans. If you put on a good show, your booking value stayed high; you had job security for putting on a good show, so the drivers who were going to run one another would talk to each other about what kind of burnout they were going to do, how many drop hops they were going to do, all in the name of the show. It was such a different climate, and an era I wish I could have participated in. Jess was such a neat dude, smart, and, as I’ve found to be the case with many of these icons of the sport, a real human being beneath the firesuit.”
Tyree was the grand marshal of the 2009 California Hot Rod Reunion.
I also got to spend some time on the phone with Tyree’s youngest son, Bart, who was just 7 when his dad stopped running Funny Cars and who lived with him the last seven years and was part of his nostalgia efforts the last three decades; he revels in the fact that his dad was so well-remembered and recognized.
“Dad would always talk to us kids about cars because we all had parts and cars to work on, and naturally, we bragged about him to all of our high school friends,” he said. “When he worked at the dealerships, he had mementos from his career hanging on the wall of his office, and even though he was a real humble man, he was proud that people would make models of his cars or that Slixx would make decals for them.
“He was very humbled when people would come up to him at the Hot Rod Reunions and share their memories with him. We had some guys from Australia last year who knew about him. They were so excited to see he was still running, and when they found out he had cancer, they were amazed he could still do what he was doing. I tried to tell him that he should take it easy, and he told me, ‘Just let me get into the car and do my thing.’ He only knew one way to race, and that was wide-open. I was talking to Hayden Proffitt the other day about how he and my dad were the last two from the original Santa Ana group from the 1950s, how he and my dad and Mickey raised hell all across the United States.
”Before he died, he told me he wanted me to carry on for him and drive his car, but I’m not sure I could do him any justice. There’s no way to replace him.”
Jim Johnson and Jimmy Nix suited up; the firesuits were mostly for show.
Jack Chrisman's Comet was a race car, shown here running in B/FD in Pomona.
Well, it appears that there’s nothing like an article about something or someone being the first to get everyone all worked up about whether or not it actually was. I’m quickly finding that tracing the roots to the “first Funny Car” might be like science’s long-running effort to pinpoint the first “man” based on physical characteristics and abilities alone. I love it when a plan comes together.
So allow me to throw a little more gasoline on the fire.
Did the Jimmy Nix- and Jim Johnson-driven Dodge Chargers I wrote about last week precede Jack Chrisman’s Comet? Absolutely. A lot of sources state that Ford’s Fran Hernandez had Chrisman build the Comet specifically to beat the Dodges and to shadow them as they went around the country and try to goad them into running head to head.
But was Chrisman’s car more like what we know today as a Funny Car because it ran on nitromethane and had direct drive, whereas the Chargers ran on gas with automatic transmissions? No doubt.
Did either look like or were they built like what we know today as a Funny Car? No. The tube-frame, flip-top look did not come into vogue until 1966 with the Comets of Chrisman, Don Nicholson, Eddie Schartman, and Kenz & Leslie.
Was anyone calling them “funny cars” at the time? There’s anecdotal information about Hernandez telling Chrisman to go out and beat those “funny” Dodges at their own game, but, realistically, those Chargers were not all that funny looking. In fact, other than the injector scoop protruding only slightly above the hood line and the mostly-for-show parachutes that blossomed at the end of each run (mandatory, according to Johnson), the Chargers were pretty stock-appearing. They did not have altered wheelbases that created a “funny” appearance, nor did Chrisman’s Comet. In fact, in a Hot Rod magazine article about the Sachs & Sons Comet, Chrisman specifically noted that he tried to retain as many stock pieces as possible.
The seven Chryslers that showed up at AHRA’s 1965 Winternationals did have altered wheelbases – the rear axle moved forward by more than a foot and the front wheels pushed forward by 10 inches – and certainly looked more “funny” than the Chargers or Chrisman’s Comet, but the class certainly did not exist by name. According to one account I found online, their bodies were acid-dipped, the front fenders, doors, dash, hood, and deck lid were fiberglass, and the glass windows had been replaced by lightweight plastic. Yet they did not compete in a class called Funny Car but more likely as Super Stockers or some sort of special “factory showdown” type of race.
Fortunately, there is a small community of drag racing history experts in my circle of pals, so I called on a couple of them to weigh in. Dave Wallace, in my opinion one of the true deans of drag racing history, has authored articles on the subject – including a really nice one about the Dodge Chargers, which originally appeared in Hot Rod magazine in 2005 but is reprinted in the current (and, sadly, last) issue of Elapsed Times on newsstands now – and has firsthand knowledge of the era.
“Having not only lived through the stock-to-Funny Car evolution but working at tracks (since 1961) and starting to write about these things (since 1964), I was lucky to closely observe that entire process,” he wrote. “It's always perplexed me how even many people who consider Chrisman's Comet to be the first blown-fuel funny car (lowercase) refuse to recognize the three Dodges that preceded and, in fact, directly inspired FoMoCo to back Chrisman (to break the 150-mph barrier before one of the 141-mph Chargers got there first). Since Chrisman's Comet was built specifically to compete with the Dodge Chargers, surely the minor differences – e.g., fuel type and transmission – don't disqualify the cars that started the whole trend by touring widely and demonstrating to local stocker hitters everywhere that bolting on a blower made it possible to race for money and fame instead of cheap trophies and record certificates.”
“Flyin’ Phil” Elliott, another well-respected guy with an encyclopedic knowledge who has covered the sport for decades, also chimed in. “The Dodge Chargers were not AWB [altered wheelbase]. Chrisman's Comet was also not AWB, and although these are all part of the history of the movement, were not ‘funny cars’ per se. It has been an arguable, semantic point BUT quite important nonetheless. The actual name possibly/probably could have been something coined by a hyped-up announcer with a phrase such as, ‘Those new Dodges/Plymouths sure look funny.’ There are also the two theories that the term was very derogatory: one coming from the hot/wire-wheel racers who failed to see much humor in the ever-more popular stockers, and the other from an edict laid down by Hernandez, who stated emphatically that his factory teams were not to match race ‘those funny cars.’
Dick Landy's injected FXer looked more "funny" than the Chargers or Comet.
“That said, I suggest that the term ‘funny car’ describes what has become a nearly mystical ideology, one that has evolved far beyond the original intent. The ‘movement’ came during a third stage of drag race evolvement, one that rapidly snowballed out of Detroit’s horsepower race. And, having lived and experienced it, approximately five years after I viewed my first drag race, I can tell you that seeing the touring AWB/AFX group (Sox & Martin, Landy, [Cecil] Yother, [Hayden] Proffitt, [Malcolm] Durham, and about 20 more, etc.) in August of 1965 changed my life.”
Wallace also pointed out that no existing class in drag racing retains its original name; e.g., gassers were “hot stockers”; dragsters were called "rails" and even "lakesters"; altereds were "hot roadsters" and "hot coupes/sedans." Keeping that in mind, Wallace supposes that it might not have been until Dick Landy unveiled his wild, altered-wheelbase '64 Dodge Super Stocker late in 1964 (after Chrisman had run in Indy) that the cars began to gain the nickname and, obviously, even longer before the sanctioning bodies sanctioned a category with the name in uppercase letters (in NHRA’s case, late 1966).
(Yet I heard from Jack “JA Approved” Redd, a longtime East Coast reporter/photographer/bon vivant, who claims that the term was loosely coined in 1964 at Maryland’s Aquasco Speedway when track employee Alvin Johnson first saw Chrisman’s car and was said to proclaim, ‘Man, that a funny-looking car!’ and that the first race ever advertised as a “Funny Car” meet was staged at Aquasco by promoter Julio Marra in 1965. I cannot confirm or disprove any of this.)
Ron Pellegrini's Super Mustang was an all-fiberglass nitroburner.
Into the fray comes my old buddy Ron Pellegrini -- who has raced everything from gas dragsters to A/FXers to Funny Cars and even Tommy Ivo’s four-engine Showboat -- who put some skin into the game by suggesting that it was in fact his Super Mustang that has a claim to being the first Funny Car inasmuch as it had an all-fiberglass body (albeit two pieces), a tube chassis, and a setback supercharged engine burning nitro in 1965, a year before the flip-top Comets.
After watching what was beginning to happen all around them, Pellegrini proposed to Ford Racing chief Jacque Passino in late 1964 that he take what the Dodges were doing to the next step by adding a tube-frame chassis and putting Ford’s hot new Mustang body atop it. Ford decided to pass – thinking the car would be too light and dangerous – but Pellegrini had already set the wheels in motion, taking an off-the-lot Mustang to a friend’s fiberglass shop (which later led directly to Pellegrini founding Fiberglass Ltd., the premier builder of Funny Car bodies) to build a mold, then mounting the body to the Dennison, Arlasky, and Knox fuel roadster chassis he had purchased. Voila! It’s a Funny Car, right?
So the debate rages on, but it’s not likely to end with a solid conclusion.
Jack Chrisman is no longer around to debate the point, though several of his longtime friends and associates, including Insider readers Mike Kopmanis and Kim Welch, firmly believe that Chrisman’s Comet rightly should wear the crown.
Fortunately for me, Jim Johnson is still around – alive and kicking and still driving for a living, as an escort driver for oversize loads. His daughter, Dori Lewis, passed along his phone number, and I was surely eager to get his take on the discussion.
Jim Johnson (photo courtesy of Hot Rod)
He prefaced our conversation – admirably conducted while he was doing escort duty, our conversation interrupted a few times by incoming and outgoing radio calls -- by noting that he was wearing a T-shirt picturing the car and emblazoned with the words “The Beginning” and went on to offer a fair and interesting assessment of Funny Car lineage.
Johnson doesn’t recall the first time he heard the phrase “funny car” used in conjunction with either his Charger or Chrisman’s Comet and noted that even before them, some of the Factory Experimental guys were toying with altered-wheelbase cars that certainly looked “funny.” In Johnson’s view, the difference between a funny-looking car and anything that might be considered a “funny car” was the supercharger.
“The fuel-racing dragster guys all want to say it was Jack’s car because he ran fuel and high-gear-only like them, and, to be fair, I loved Jack and thought his car was amazing, but it probably never would have been built if it wasn’t for our cars.
“Our cars were never really designed to be race cars; they were a promotion by Dodge to get people to buy more Dodge cars, which is one reason we were not allowed to race anyone but one another. There also was a safety concern from the people at Dodge for what any car that was racing us might do as far as control went. We also weren’t allowed to do things to the cars to make them faster – like moving the engine farther back – because Dodge wanted to maintain a look as close to stock as we could.
“A lot of people want to say we weren’t allowed to run against Jack because Dodge was afraid we’d lose, but I would have loved to. In the early part of that year, before Jack really got the car figured out, it was more tire smoke and noise than performance, and I honestly think we could have beaten him. He might have out-mile-per-houred us, but I don’t think he would have beaten us to the finish line.
“But to answer your original question, I think that anyone who was in any kind of program that progressed the class was part of it, and Jack certainly took what we were doing one step further. I’m not going to say we were the first funny cars because that might have come from those altered-wheelbased cars that came before us, but I’m sticking with the fact that ours were the first factory-sponsored, supercharged race cars that led to the class we know today as Funny Car.”
I received the photos at right of the Nix/Johnson Dodge Chargers running at San Diego Raceway in 1964 from reader Rich Fritz, and they are the first color action photos I have ever seen of the cars and downright cool. I asked Rich to share his story.
“It was in March 1964, and I was 20 years young and excited to see what these new mystery Mopar Chargers were all about. It was a beautiful, nice, sunny, warm spring Ramona day. The raceway actually ran parallel to the Ramona Airport in those days.
"The anticipation was pretty intense as we were wondering how quick these S/FX factory cars were. It did not take long to find out! When they rolled these beauties off the trailers and started setting them up to run, we all wanted to see as much as we could, but for somewhat obvious reasons, they kept everybody back from eyeballing too much.
“Then they finally got into position on the line, and the Chrondek timing Tree started counting down to the green light, and the thundering Mopars were revving up for quick exit from the box. Then, off they went, just as straight and controlled as any Mopar of that class and size we had ever seen. I didn’t remember the exact e.t. and speed – somewhere in the 11-second range, and the speed was somewhere in the 130-mph stratosphere – but it was the fastest, full-bodied-car drag race I was ever to witness in those early days of drag racing.
“It was the best drag race I had ever witnessed with my 20-year-old eyes, and everyone was showing quite a range of emotion, from disbelief to big, wide grins and cheers. I was glad they made two more runs, but I was in some degree of shock all day.”
It was at San Diego Raceway – and I’m not certain it was the day of Fritz’s photos – that Nix crashed his Charger. As noted, the cars ran Torqueflite transmissions, shifted by the infamous dashboard push buttons, but Nix was either unaware or forgot that in the process of making them race-ready, the buttons were reassigned so that “Drive” was actually 1st gear and “First” was actually high gear (“Second” was still 2nd). He launched in what was high, and the car bogged; he carried on with the run, but, of course, when he went for high gear, he got 1st instead. The tires locked up, and he crashed. That car was repaired and carried on. Later that year, another Charger was destroyed while riding atop a car carrier when the truck driver tried to pass beneath a low bridge.
Johnson thinks it was his car that was destroyed, but Wallace’s article opines it was the team’s third car – known as “the bumper car” because it still carried the stock 330 bumpers whose original purpose was as a display car for dealerships – that was wrecked. Nix’s car – easily identifiable because of firewall modifications that Nix had made in hopes of being allowed to move the engine rearward (he was forbidden) – was discovered as a “barn find” in Wisconsin in 1980 and restored and passed through several hands. Johnson believes that the third car – be it his car or the “bumper car” – is still out there somewhere.
Jody Austin chimed in to the “first Funny Car” discussion – somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I’m assuming – that his dad, Raymond, had what he calls “the Original Flopper” in the late 1950s: A homebuilt, tube “pipe” chassis with a flip-top Fiat body and a supercharged engine. The car was towed from Texas to the 1960 Smokers Meet in Bakersfield, where it won its class over the likes of Ratican, Jackson & Stearns and a slew of other cars.
“This flopper, originally built in 1957, was raced in 1958, then rebuilt with a lighter frame and raced in ‘59 and set the national record several times,” he wrote. “As the story goes, after setting the A/Fuel Coupe national record, Dad was presented with an offer to have his way paid to go to Bakersfield if he could match those record times again. The car was taken back to the track, and once again, he equaled the record. The offer was made good, and off he went, then winning the class there.”
Newer fans may remember the Austin name as car owner of the Top Fueler driven by Marshall Love that lost in the third round in Indy in 1970, falling to Jim Nicoll, who two rounds later lost that unforgettable final round to Don Prudhomme. The senior Austin had a rear-engine race car as early as 1954 and went on to drive for Vance Hunt before building his own Top Fuel car in 1962 with driver Bob Lace, who was killed in the car in a crash at Louisiana’s LaPlace Dragway in September 1963. Other cars and drivers followed, including what is purported to be Richard Tharp’s first ride before partnering with Love.
OK, Funny Car fans, that’s where I leave you. So whether you’re in the Johnson/Nix camp, the Chrisman camp, the Pellegrini camp, or any other camp, or whether you believe that sahelanthropus tchadensis was the first “man” or that it was homo habilis, I don’t have the answer. That both frustrates and amuses me.
Maybe next we could talk about the origins of the term “drag race.” Or not.
Thanks for reading and chiming in.
As one Insider reader tweeted to me last week after my column about working to create a list of the top 20 Funny Cars, “Can open, worms everywhere.”
Yes, indeed, we did open a whole can of worms with the notion that I – or anyone – could possibly distill 50 years of NHRA Funny Cars into such a narrow funnel, and the outpouring of suggestions from readers of this column, as well as on Facebook, has been entertaining, enlightening, and even a bit overwhelming.
I got lists of 20, 10, and even just one suggestion. I got some lists that contained very specific year and model designations with detailed notes, and I got others with just a car name. I got some history lessons. I even got chastised by a few. What fun! Some very noticeable trends, cars, or drivers made it on most of the lists, including some of the most obvious like Don Prudhomme’s Army Monza, Don Nicholson’s Eliminator I Comet, and John Force’s ’96 Castrol Pontiac, but also a host of others, which I whittled down to about 50 logical candidates (some of y’all had some very unusual suggestions). We’re well on the road to narrowing it down, and I’ve enlisted the help of some of my respected colleagues throughout the sport to help. Thanks for all of your suggestions and input.
One of the questions that has arisen concerns the timeline that was chosen to demarcate the 50 years of the class’ history that NHRA will be celebrating this year. As many of you correctly pointed out, Funny Cars – in one form or another – were around long before the 1966 World Finals, where NHRA first hosted the class as an official eliminator.
So what follows is a relatively quick history of how we got there.
The definition of what constitutes a Funny Car is part of the problem. The lineage probably begins in the Super Stock ranks (most notably the intriguingly named Optional Super Stock class), which begat the A/Factory Experimental (A/FX) classes that were launched in 1962 (check out the article by former ND staffer John Jodauga here) and later the XS (experimental stock) classes, as teams began to experiment with different fuels, engines, power adders, tires, and altered wheelbases. Although it didn’t have a flip-top body or a tube chassis that has come to define the class, cars like the Jack Chrisman-driven Sachs & Sons Comet, which wowed the fans at the 1964 Nationals in Indianapolis, is considered by many to be the original Funny Car. It was, after all, powered by a nitromethane-fueled, supercharged engine.
Many believe that these matching Dodge Chargers, driven by Jimmy Nix and Jim Johnson, were the first Funny Cars.
But that car was predated earlier in 1964 by a pair of Dodge Charger exhibition vehicles, classified as S/FXers (the S standing for either “supercharged” or “super,” depending on who is telling the story), that were pretty much identical to what Chrisman would campaign but ran on gasoline instead of nitro. Powered by supercharged 480-cid Max Wedge engines built and prepared by Jim Nelson and Dode Martin of Dragmaster fame – engines almost identical to those in the Dragmaster Dart Top Gas cars – and driven by Jimmy Nix and Jim Johnson, the cars ran in the high 10s at 130 mph at a time when the quickest Super Stocker and traditional FXers were running 11s at 120 mph. By all accounts, these were the first factory vehicles to use parachutes and the first in which the drivers wore firesuits.
NHRA Division 5 Director Darrell Zimmerman, left, chats with Johnson and Nix.
The Dodge wedge powerplants were supercharged, but ran on gas not nitro.
Jack Chrisman's nitro-burning B/FD Comet wowed the fans at Indy 1964.
According to Nelson, the idea and the financing for the wild machines came from Michigan promoter Don Beebe, who put together $250,000 – or almost $2 million in 2016 dollars – to build the cars and pay the drivers and mechanics. NHRA President Wally Parks – as always, “dedicated to safety” – was worried about the handling aspects of the proposed machines, but once Nelson assured him that the cars would use the same suspension components as the legal Super Stockers and would retain the wheelbase and other stock dimensions – cars even used the Chrysler push-button three-speed Torqueflite transmission favored by many of the Super Stock teams -- the project was allowed to go forward. Dean Jeffries even enclosed the parachutes in a box recessed into the trunk to help maintain a stock appearance.
The cars made their first exhibition-race appearances at San Diego Raceway in March with a three-race format. They were supposed to be identically prepared, but Johnson, who won B/SA class at the 1963 Nationals with his ’62 Dodge Polara 500, remembers that the ultra-competitive Nix always tried to one-up him, switching to different tires or throwing some lead shot into the trunk for better traction. Nix also lobbied heavily to run nitro in the cars but was denied, and reportedly, it was Nix who suggested to Chrisman that he try to get permission from Mercury Racing Director Fran Hernandez to run the 427 in his under-construction Comet on nitro, which he hoped would leverage into him being able to run the same in the Charger.
By the time that Chrisman’s Comet ran in Indy, the Charger program had been waylaid by financial issues and parts shortages. The last time that the Dodge Chargers appeared was in July at a dragstrip in Greer, S.C., and a disheartened Nix returned to driving Top Gas dragsters.
Chrisman’s Comet was placed in the B/Fuel Dragster class in Indy, where it was defeated in eliminations but not before recording times of 10.25 and 156.31 mph.
The Dodges found new life in 1965 as part of the Guzler Chargers team, running supercharged, nitromethane Hemis and direct drive, but both reportedly crashed that year. A third car built as a backup was said to have been lost in a towing accident.
By 1965, more drivers, like Dick Landy, had joined the altered-wheelbase craze.
Don Nichsolson's flip-top, tube-chassis Comet was a game changer in 1966.
Funny Cars began to proliferate in 1965, and the AHRA Winternationals in late January had seven entries – all of them Hemi-powered Mopars: the Dodges of the Ramchargers, Bud Faubel, and Dick Landy and the Plymouths of Butch Leal, Sox & Martin, Golden Commandos, and Lee Smith – all with the radical altered wheelbases that led to the now-familiar “Funny Car” sobriquet because, well, they looked “funny” compared to the traditional door cars. I’ve seen everyone from Mercury’s Hernandez to NHRA’s Jack Hart and announcer Jon Lundberg credited with popularizing or creating the nickname, but I think that fact may be lost to history.
By midyear, the pack had swelled to well more than a dozen entries, with Ford-backed Mustangs and Cyclones powered by 427 SOHC powerplants and independents getting into the action, but the Mopars were the early kings. Hernandez and his assistant, Al Turner, set out to tip the balance back toward the Ford/Mercury stable, which led to the now-famous creation of tube-chassis, flip-top Comets that were campaigned with great success in 1966 by Nicholson, Chrisman, Eddie Schartman, and the Kenz & Leslie team, all of which leads us back to the 1966 World Finals, where Schartman became NHRA’s first official Funny Car winner.
Nicholson and Chrisman are no longer with us, but I plan on speaking to Schartman in the not-too-distant future to get his memories of those pioneer days in the class as we work our way into this yearlong celebration of the plastic fantastics.