NHRA - National Hot Rod Association


First On Race Day (and in muddy alleys, too)

04 Aug 2009
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
I grew up with Fords. In fact, the first car I ever drove was this '72 Ford F-250, and I drove it hard. Me and my buddy, Van Tune (who went on to become editor of Motor Trend magazine), certainly tested the Ford Tough slogan in muddy alleys and fields throughout Culver City, Calif. Hopefully Mom's not reading this column.

My first behind-the-wheel experience was in the cab of my stepfather's Ford F-250 as a young teenager, nervously guiding the yellow pickup two blocks down our street, an obstacle course lined with parked cars that threatened to jump out and bite the truck's significant bumper.

The truck became my first highway freedom – the folks seldom let me drive their Thunderbird – and I drove the wheels off of that truck, down muddy alleys and around town, and made it live up to its Ford Tough slogan. My stepfather still has it all these years later.

A few years ago, I taught my son how to drive behind the wheel of his mom's Ford Expedition and handed down to him our black '95 Ford Bronco 4x4 as his first vehicle, a keepsake that he pampered until the cost of fueling its massive V-8 caught up to him and we got him into a 2-year-old V-6 Mustang that he's hot-rodded with a K&N Filtercharger, dual exhaust, and low-flow, high-noise mufflers. My oldest daughter drives a Ford Excursion, trusting it not only to safely carry two of my grandchildren to swim lessons and school but to tow the family boat.

Yes, we're a Ford family, which is why yesterday's long-rumored announcement that Ford has become the official car and truck of NHRA certainly went down well in my little corner of Glendora.

If you’re a longtime reader of this column, you'll know my affinity for early-'70s Mustang Funny Cars. Cars like the Blue Max, Trojan Horse, L.A. Hooker, Plueger & Gyger, War Horse, Brutus, and Keeling & Clayton California Charger and the cars of Mickey Thompson, Tommy Grove, Connie Kalitta, Jerry Ruth, and many, many others delighted fans from coast to coast.

Tommy Grove: Mustang's first Funny Car winner, 1967 Springnationals in Bristol
Danny Ongais drove Mickey Thompson's 'Stang to Ford's first Indy Pro win in '69.
The only car to defeat Don Prudhomme in 1976 was Gary Burgin's Mustang II.
Ford Funny Car wins also came in Thunderbirds; Mark Oswald nabbed a trio.
Whit Bazemore is the winningest Mustang FC driver outside of Team Force.
Bob Glidden won nine Pro Stock world championships for Ford and claimed national event titles is six Ford models, beginning with a Pinto.
Don Nicholson won Mustang's only Pro Stock world championhip in 1977.

I did some research a few weeks ago for Susan Pollack, who handles PR for Bob Tasca III, and came up with 25 national event wins for non-John Force Mustang Funny Car drivers from 1967 – when Grove scored the first – through 1998, when Whit Bazemore won the Chicago race. (Surprisingly, Baze, with six wins, is the winningest non-JFR Ford driver; I would have bet the house on Raymond Beadle.)

Add in Tim Wilkerson's two wins and longtime Ford man Tasca's Gainesville title this year to go with the 116 earned by Force drivers throughout the years (himself, daughter Ashley Force Hood, Robert Hight, Eric Medlen, Tony Pedregon, and Gary Densham), and you have nearly 150 Mustang wins. Other Mustang drivers to win NHRA national event Funny Car titles: Danny Ongais, Larry Fullerton, Dave Condit, Shirl Greer, Gary Burgin, Billy Meyer, John Lombardo, Gordie Bonin, Gary Clapshaw, and Dale Pulde (in Bazemore’s car).

Add to those pony-car wins Kenny Bernstein's dozen or so wins in his aero-trick Bud King Tempos. I'm not sure that a Pinto ever won an NHRA Funny Car event, but I know that Mark Oswald won a trio in the Candies & Hughes Thunderbird, and Beadle got a hat trick in his Blue Max EXPs. There's probably one or two along the way I missed, but it won't be long before we're celebrating 200 Ford wins in Funny Car.

Of course, Ford power has been winning NHRA Professional races for five decades; Top Fuel icons such as Kalitta, Don Prudhomme, "Sneaky Pete" Robinson, and others used Ford SOHC engines to power their rails.

Ford's first Professional NHRA world championship was in 1972, when Fullerton and the Trojan Horse won Funny Car at the World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, back when winning that lone event meant being the season champ (though drivers had to earn the right to compete there).

Pro Stock icon Bob Glidden carved Ford's First On Race Day slogan into the history books of the factory hot rod class with event wins and championships in all manner of Ford vehicles, from Pintos to Fairmonts to Thunderbirds to Probes – and won national event title in Mustangs and EXPs.

Glidden won an amazing 49 times in the 1980s – all in Fords – and had a string of 21 straight years with at least one win. He scored his first win in a Ford – a Pinto that he drove to glory at the 1973 U.S. Nationals in his home state of Indiana – and scored his 85th and final victory in a Ford – his Motorcraft-backed Probe at the 1995 event in Englishtown – and only seven wins of that magnificent total were in a car that didn't bear the famed Ford blue oval.

Pinto pilot Wayne Gapp earned Ford its first Pro Stock honors by winning the World Finals in 1973, and Glidden followed the next year with the first of Ford's points-earned titles. Ford Pro Stock drivers won five of the first seven points-tabulated world championships; Glidden won the title in 1974 and 1975 in his Pinto, "Dyno Don" Nicholson won the 1977 title in his Mustang II, and Glidden was on top again in 1978 and 1980 in his Fairmont.

Interestingly, only four Pro Stock wins have been Mustangs, two by Glidden in 1975 (when he was driving a '70 Mustang to take advantage of a weight break for longer-wheelbase cars) and two by Nicholson in his Mustang II in 1977.

Although Ford fans have not had a major name to cheer for in a few years, that tide clearly has already begun to turn. Erica Enders and Jim Cunningham have been working this season to sort out their new Mustang, and Ford diehard Robert Patrick has announced his intention to return to Pro Stock next season, but all eyes probably will be on 16-time NHRA national event winner Larry Morgan, who announced earlier this season that he will campaign a Mustang in 2010.

I'm looking forward to the Ford era of NHRA Drag Racing, and with the Force team, Tasca, Wilkerson, and the new Ford Pro Stock teams on point, I think we'll see a lot more blue-oval entries First On Race Day.