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Chi-Town and 'Jungle': Farrrrrrrrrrr out!

19 Aug 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Lots of thumbs-up (and one thumbs-down, as you will read) for last Friday’s column about the Chi-Town Hustler and “Jungle Jim” Liberman, which I guess should well be expected seeing as how they’re two of a handful of surefire winning column topics by themselves.

Longtime automotive journalist and pal Rick Voegelin explained the outpouring to me this way: "Rick's Rule of Journalism No. 1: You can't go wrong with a column about Austin Coil, 'Jungle Jim' Liberman, AND the Chi-Town ramp truck!”

Although Austin Coil didn’t mention it – and I didn’t ask – former Top Alcohol Funny Car pilot Pete Duhart recalled seeing Liberman also drive the Hustler at Irwindale “on/about 1970 or 1971,” and longtime SoCal fuel fan Cliff Morgan said that he saw the same act at Orange County Int’l Raceway. “I remember that he ran like a 6.98 in the car, and I was surprised that it could run that quick cuz it was kinda old at the time,” recalled Morgan. “I was also surprised that ‘Jungle’ drove the car, but now I know why after reading the latest column. Didn't know that ‘Jungle’ hung out with the Chi-Town guys. I think this run was maybe 1970? The better cars could run sixes, and the Hustler wasn't that competitive that day, but it was cool just to see it run and to see 'Jungle' drive it.”

Gary Crumrine joshed that I should have known that it was Liberman in the photos because he had considerably more hair than the follicly challenged Minick. “Maybe you were thrown off by the pretty face next to him,” he added helpfully.

“I remember that old truck of theirs,” he continued. “It was kind of ratty, but then again, the whole operation was kind of ratty. They put their money in hustle, not polish. I think it was part of the original persona: bad boys from Illinois. Back then, a pair of greasy white pants and a T-shirt was about all a crew guy needed, and you would see one or two guys, including the driver, pitch in for between-rounds maintenance. Sure loved the burnouts and dry hops of the era. Minick was the king of smoke. It all must have worked. They pretty much were the guys to beat for a long time. Coil was a genius back then too.”

Probably not the image that Steve Morse references, but still pretty cool.

A lot of people were “Jungle” fans, even his fellow drivers. Steve Morse hung out with Russell Long (who also drove the Chi-Town Hustler for a few years) in the 1980s after his ride ended in Dennis Fowler’s Sundance Monza and reported that Coil and driver Frank Hawley used to park the rig at Long’s house in El Toro, Calif., while in SoCal. “Russell had a poster-sized pic of ‘Jungle’ from OCIR on his kitchen wall that had the header fire at the roof at idle,” he remembered. “Russell always spoke fondly of ‘Jungle.’ I also traveled to Fremont, I think it was '82, when Hawley won his first of two crowns with the Chi-Town guys, and ‘Vipe’ [Don Prudhomme] could barely qualify that weekend, but Coil tuned ‘er up and went low I think? We were pitted right next to ‘Snake,’ and he could not believe box truck vs. big rig stuff ran so well. ‘Vipe’ even asked Coil if he ever took the heads off, and Coil just twisted his toothpick and chuckled. I remember Hawley going a few rounds, and Coil was kidding with Hawley how he was going to install a remote-controlled cattle prod in the seat so Hawley would leave on time!”

Not everyone was thrilled with my storytelling. Add this to the Phil Burgess Smackdown File:

Reader Cliff T. scolded, “The following statements about the Chi-Town Hustler Funny Car were a bit off base from your usual accurate reporting, in my opinion. You said, ‘But I bet you didn’t know that the Hustler also had a couple of other drivers who took brief albeit memorable rides in the famous flopper: a couple of guys named “Jungle Jim” Liberman and Austin Coil.’

“Really? I know you don't know everything and neither do I, and I know you can't remember everything and neither can I, but this was common knowledge to me and any real ‘Jungle Jim’ Funny Car racing fan. ‘Jungle’ driving the Hustler was written about both in the old Drag News and in National DRAGSTER, and ‘Jungle’ himself would talk about it with his fans when asked. Coil was interviewed on ESPN in Atlanta and revealed how he had once ‘shoed’ the Hustler at a Rockford, Ill., four-wide race in days of old, and four-wide was nothing new to him.”

Which is why I called the column “I didn't know that.”

C.T. continued, “You said, 'Everyone knows the story of the great Chi-Town Hustler, how engineering ace John Farkonas, tuning wiz Austin Coil, and deft driver Pat Minick turned the Funny Car world on its ear with the first burnouts and ran their Dodge-bodied cars at match races from coast to coast.’

“The first time I saw the Chi-Town Hustler Funny Car on the West Coast was with a Plymouth Barracuda body, not Dodge, and I guarantee you, all of the top-name fuel Funny Cars of that time were there at that Beeline [Dragway, Ariz.] meet in late 1967 [and] were all doing burnouts before each of their runs. If you mean that the next FCM car, the new Chi-Town Dodge Charger Funny Car, was the first to do longer-style burn-throughs to lay down more rubber ... maybe they were. I have heard they were ... but in no way were they the first Funny Cars to do Funny Car burnouts with that old Barracuda of theirs.”

OK, so maybe I could have been more clear about what I meant about the burnouts; I definitely should have added the word “long” in there. The idea of spinning the tires to warm them predates even those early Funny Cars, and, yes, the first Chi-Town Hustler was a ’67 'Cuda. Heck, the Hustler once even was a Ford, too, but mostly it was a Dodge, including the Challenger shown here in 1973.

In an interview in National DRAGSTER a few years ago, Coil talked about those early years and how the Hustler’s legend began with that first 'Cuda. “We’d gone out and played with the car a few times, but we decided that we needed to go somewhere we’d be noticed,” he said. “We dragged it to a Funny Car race of some consequence [the Super Stock Nationals at U.S. 30 in York, Pa., in June of 1967] and ran an 8.17, which was low e.t. I remember Don Nicholson coming over and saying, ‘Who the hell are you guys?’ That made us feel pretty good, and that’s kind of where it all started.”

But, according to Coil, it was at a match race in Springfield, Ill., in July of 1969 that the Hustler Charger made the first of what would become its trademark LONG burnouts.

(Richard Wood photo)

“We thought that if you smoked the tires really hard in high gear and got them hot that it might help the traction,” said Coil. “That’s why we did it. We had no intention of wowing the crowd; it was just an attempt to try to run better. As it turned out, it did run pretty good. It was just an eighth-mile track, and I don’t recall any times, but the crowd went nuts, and it became part of our act. With the tires of that era, if you got them spinning pretty good in the water, the car hardly moved, and smoke just billowed off them. We did the same thing the next day in Rockford, Ill., and the reaction of the fans there confirmed that we had stumbled onto something pretty spectacular. Some of the guys thought that you must have to do something different to do that, but you didn’t. A lot of guys overrevved the motor, but it wasn’t necessary.”

Coil also had some kind words for all of his drivers. “Pat [Minick] did a wonderful job,” he said. “In the beginning, there were no driver aids of any kind, and with the old Torqueflite transmissions, if you were too heavy on the throttle, you could easily spin the tires and blow up the motor. Frequently, some of the racetracks we’d run on would have oily spots, and sometimes you could actually hear him lift off the throttle a little to make sure he could steer around the oil and carry on. All of our drivers did a good job, but I think [Long] was the most underrated. He did a super job, but at the time he was driving [1976], we had a pretty crappy race car, and he never really had the chance to do anything of note. But it wasn’t his fault.”

And we’re back to Liberman to round out the column today. My Pure Nostalgia column in National DRAGSTER this week recaps the 1977 season, which, of course, was when “Jungle” was killed in an accident Sept. 9 in which his Corvette collided with a bus near his West Chester, Pa., home. He was just three days shy of his 32nd birthday.

For my generation of drag racing fans, it was akin to losing our Elvis Presley, the coolest cat on the block. Don’t get me wrong, “the Snake” was ultracool, but “Jungle” was our rock star, and I find it particularly interesting that Elvis, who died Aug. 16, and “Jungle” died just 24 days apart.

In reviewing Liberman’s passing, I came across a very touching obituary in National DRAGSTER’s Sept. 23 issue. For years, Wally Parks had kept a pretty stern hand on the tiller and frowned on overly sentimental prose in DRAGSTER, but this one must have got an exemption. I sense enough of a semi-black-sheep tone to suspect that perhaps even Parks himself may have written it. The tribute to Liberman (“racer, innovator, promoter, showman and rebel”) reads, in part: “Outlaw or superstar; flakey or fantastic, whatever one's personal opinion of ‘Jungle Jim,’ the sport will not be the same without him. He's gone before his time, perhaps even before his prime. We all will most certainly miss him. But as long as there are Funny Cars, we won't forget him. His is a name that is synonymous with the Funny Cars simply because he did more than any other man to popularize Funny Car drag racing. The success that those hybrids now enjoy is ‘Jungle's’ legacy. We are all indebted to him for it.”

Liberman’s obituary also included this: “Always considered something of a free spirit, it was Liberman who almost single-handedly stole the show in the film short Vrooom! with his enthusiastic endorsement: ‘Drag Racing is Far Out!’ ”

The words alone don’t do justice to that amazing piece of "Jungle"-ism. It was more like “Drag racing is farrrrrrrrrrr out!” It was a sound bite that got used extensively, including in radio ads.

So I got to thinking: Next month, “Jungle” would have turned 65. With John Force still planning to compete up through his 65th birthday, would Liberman still be racing today? “Berserko Bob” Doerrer knew, traveled, ate, and raced with “Jungle” for the last seven years of his life, so he seemed to be the logical one to ask.

“I’ve said for years if 'Jungle' hadn’t been killed, he’d be what John Force is now,” he opined. “His best friend was Austin Coil, and when ‘Jungle’ got the 7-Eleven sponsorship in August of 1977, they were talking about putting together a two-car team with JJ driving one car and getting another driver in the second car. Candidates were Jake Crimmins, Roy Harris, and their No. 1 choice, Pat Foster.”

Really makes you wonder what might have been, doesn’t it?

According to Doerrer, Old Bridge Township Raceway Park owner Vinnie Napp brokered the 7-Eleven deal for Liberman, leveraging the convenience store’s sponsorship of the Englishtown track by convincing it to sponsor Liberman for the track’s annual 32-car U.S. All-Pro Funny Car Championships event. Because it was staged on the weekend before Labor Day, all the nation’s top nitro cars were on the way to Indy and used the race as a test session.

“ ‘Jungle’ showed up with the orange car in 7-Eleven livery and with all the 7-Eleven executives in attendance put on a show I’ll never forget,” Doerrer recalled. “Killer burnouts, backing up at 70 mph, and even though he didn’t win the race, the crowd around his pit was bigger than any other Funny Car on the property. 7-Eleven signed him right then and there. ‘Jungle’ also had Castrol as a sponsor, and when he got killed, you know where they went.

“As far as his [still] driving, I think he would have done it for as long as he was having fun doing it. Without a doubt, he liked the mechanical aspect of drag racing better, but the fans dug him, and even though he sent other drivers in his cars to tracks with ['Jungle'] Pam, there wasn’t anybody who had his skills and charisma. Ask anybody who ever saw him race: He was fearless, a showman, and knew how to work the crowd.”

Doerrer also sent me the photo at right, which includes the restored “Jungle Jim” Vega in which Liberman won his only national event, the 1975 Summernationals.

“At the end of the 1975 season, ‘Jungle’ sold his car to a guy from Sweden. ‘Jungle’ sold it complete, ready to run, and it was stuffed in a container at Port Newark (N.J.) and went to Sweden. The new owner was Janne Johansson, who raced it a few times, then parked the car until a few years ago when he did a full restoration on the car, and here it is parked alongside the Pisano & Matsubara car he recently completed. Both of them are cackle cars only, and Janne’s plans are to bring them Stateside someday.”

Now that would be farrrrrrrrrrr out!