NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Fan Fotos: Early Funny Cars

23 Oct 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Welcome back, race fans, to another installment of Fan Fotos. We're going to take you back a few more years than past installments today, thanks to reader Joe Kerr, who sent me a bunch of photos from his late-1960s Southern California race-going days, primarily at fabled Lions Drag Strip. The photos, true fan photos based on their location behind fences and poles, are cool; I don't think I've ever seen this exact view of Lions, and it gives a great overall look at the facility and how close the fans were to the action.

"The [Lions] pictures are from the 1966 East vs. West Championship. It was a match race weekend event. I don't remember who won the event, but do recall 'Dyno Don' was giving all the racers a workout. I shot the photos from the pitside bleachers, first row, using a 135mm camera, and I believe it was a Yachika. It was an accordion-type camera that pulled out. Nothing fancy; I just panned the camera as the cars were moving, though some were stopped after doing the burnouts.

"Oh boy, what can you not like about going to the drags in the '60s?" he added. "At Lions, you were just about sitting on the strip from the pit side, so you could smell the fuel and rubber from burnouts, and the tingle in your ears from the vibration would make you shudder. The race was close and personal. Back then, racing was not as commercial as it is today. Though I still attend and recently completed a B/FX '65 Mustang Fastback to run the nostalgia events, it's hard to replicate the era and racers of that day. I have been involved with drag racing since 1965 and at 65 will continue to enjoy the sport."

Here's a quartet of photos, all from the same vantage point, showcasing some of those mid-1960s Funny Cars. At top left is Steve Bovan in the Blair's Speed Shop-backed Chevy II, the first "response" to Jack Chrisman's awe-inspiring Chrisman's Comet. This lightweight monster was fitted with a blown 396 on alcohol and was a crowd-pleaser with smoky passes but probably wasn't a real threat to Chrisman's monster. At top right is header guru Doug Thorley's similar entry, the Chevy 2 Much (not to be confused with Ed Carter's Chevy II Much), though Thorley's ride was injected and Bovan's was blown. In the center is Pontiac standard-bearer Arnie Beswick's amazing Tameless Tiger GTO. That famous car was later replaced by a number of floppers through the early 1970s. Ageless Arnie resurrected the Tameless Tiger name in the 1990s with a hot-looking Pontiac Tempest and continued to put on a great show for fans into the new millennium. And finally, directly above is the topless '66 Dodge Dart of "the Flying Dutchman," Al Vanderwoude, who would go on to field Funny Cars under that banner into the late '70s and even loaned the name to a few cars after. This car is a wild one, and I've seen it in other forms, including one with its roof only partially removed, which probably was an aero nightmare. Unlike on a lot of "roadster" Funny Cars, Vanderwoude covered the engine and driver area with aluminum panels and had the headers sticking up through the panels.

One of Lions' true stars was the late Lew Arrington, who passed away early last year. His line of Brutus cars began with this altered wheelbase GTO out of Goodies Speed Shop. This is probably one of the earliest incarnations of that car as I do not see a blower sticking out of the hoodless engine bay. Power also was Pontiac-brewed. "Jungle Jim" Liberman used the blown version of this car as a stepping-stone to fame. There's a really great old home movie of the blown Brutus running at Fremont here; be forewarned ... there's a one-minute segment left in the middle of this video that is a true home movie of someone's dog, but just keep watching.

A lot of more recent fans know Richard Schroeder from his popular Smokey Red and Emergency West wheelstanders or as a quality race announcer, but the big guy, who left us in August 2007, was a pretty good "real" racer back in the early '60s with a series of early Funny Cars like the all-steel Emerald Chevrolet-backed Bad Bossa Nova. The near-stock 427 ran 40 percent nitro and mid-nines.

Again, though newer fans may remember him for his exhibition antics – in this case, in jet dragsters, Hayden Proffitt, a onetime Super Stock racer, can truly be considered one of the early Funny Car legends in the early 1960s, and none of his rides was wilder than this Corvair. In its original incarnation, the car was -- how shall I say it? – unpredictable on the top end with a tendency to want to take flight. Solution: Remove the roof. Voila! Proffitt gets major props from me – a guy whose first hot rod was a Javelin – for following the Corvair by building a pure AMC Funny Car, from its Rebel body down to its powerplant. That's right, the Grant Rambler Rebel SST was fitted with 439 cubic inches of Kenosha-brewed power, and although the car eventually ran in the sevens, it was somewhat behind the pace of its Chevy- and Chrysler-powered peers.

Here's Richard Scott in the Scott & Hunter Malfunction '65 Chevy II, an injected-on-alcohol, rat-motored runner out of Glendale, Calif., in 1966. The venue is Carlsbad Raceway, a longtime SoCal dragstrip down San Diego way that lived in the shadows of its better-known rivals about an hour or so north up the freeway, Orange County Int’l Raceway and Lions Drag Strip, but it still drew a lot of quality cars. Its off-the-beaten-path location didn't help its popularity but maybe ensured its longevity as it outlived all the others before finally getting turned over for a business park in 2004. There's a great memorial site for the ol' gal here, including some painful shots of the asphalt being ripped up and what it was replaced with.

More Carlsbad action, and a name that should be well familiar to most drag racing fans, Mopar ace "Dandy Dick" Landy. The perennially cigar-chomping SoCal hero, a pioneer in the Funny Car and Pro Stock ranks, studied mechanical engineering at San Fernando Valley Jr. College and got his start building high-performance marine motors, which led to the 1961 founding of Automotive Research. Although he's known as a Mopar guy, he actually began his racing career driving Fords but switched to Chrysler once Mopar got hot and heavy into drag racing in the early 1960s. This is a rare photo of Landy's altered wheelbase '66 Dart -- rare because all four wheels are on the ground – one of the forerunners of the Funny Cars that eventually hit the eights at 180 mph, but by 1970, Landy was already in the Pro Stock class and was one of the class' heavy hitters in its inaugural season in 1970, when he drove his Challenger to a win at the Summernationals. Landy, who passed away in January 2007, was eulogized by NHRA founder Wally Parks, who noted, "In his heyday, Dick Landy was every drag racing fan’s hero. His racing equipment was always of the finest quality, matched by his expertise behind the wheel. His trademark cigar and his ready smile were qualities that made him stand out among his peers. Landy will always remain one of drag racing's memorable heroes and an example of the drag racing sport at its finest."

Still more Carlsbad, but the subject is Top Fuel. That's SoCal veteran Gary "Mr. C" Cochran at the helm. Cochran, who drove both nitro dragsters and Funny Cars, owns an interesting piece of drag racing history as he raced Don Garlits in the final round of the 1971 Grand American event at Lions in the debut of Garlits' revolutionary rear-engine dragster. Not only did Cochran race "Big Daddy," but he beat him, too. A week later, he drove Carl Casper's All American Top Fueler to a final-round win over Garlits at OCIR's All-Pro Series event. Garlits, of course, went on to win the Winternationals and cast the die for the class' future, but Cochran at least had a hand in defending the old guard one last time. Cochran first came to quarter-mile notice in 1965 with a hard-running AA/Comp roadster in which he regularly battled the likes of Larry Dixon Sr. and "Flaming Frank" Pedregon at Lions. After a few years in Top Gas, he moved to Top Fuel in 1969 and ran his own car through the end of 1973. From then on, he sporadically drove cars in both nitro classes, the last of which was R.T. Mehlville's Tempo in 1987. Great photo; who cares about the stupid pole. That's what these Fan Fotos are all about!

Man, that was a fun trip back to the '60s; thanks, Joe, for giving us a reminder of how it all started for the fiberglass fantastics!