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The day that 'Jungle' drove the Chi-Town Hustler

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

It’s a fact of life that just when you think you know everything about something, you get slapped upside the head, which happened to me (again) this week.

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, then in 1982, with Frank Hawley at the wheel, took on the touring Pros and won the first of two straight NHRA world championships from under the noses of Don Prudhomme, Billy Meyer, Kenny Bernstein, Raymond Beadle, et al with their low-dollar, high-consistency Dodge Charger. We know that Coil left the team to work for John Force and went on to create more history.

If you’re a real Chi-Town fan, you also probably know that drivers like Ron Colson, Denny Savage, Clare Sanders, and Pete Williams wheeled the car in the 1970s before Hawley took over in 1980.

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.

Wild, right? I know! One of the most popular Funny Car drivers ever and nitro racing's most succesful tuner both drove one of the most famous Funny Cars ever! I didn't know that. So, how did this come to light?

Insider reader Bill Klinger sent a scan of a newspaper clipping that included the photo at right showing Coil posing with the jungle man and the race queen after winning an event at Southeastern Dragway in Dallas, Ga. From the style of the caption and the headline font, I knew it came from the pages of National DRAGSTER, but no date was included. It was clear to me from “Jungle” sitting in the opened “driver’s side” roof hatch that this was the famed offset-driver car, but it’s also a car that ran from 1969 through mid-1971, so I didn’t want to have to thumb through three years of DRAGSTER looking for it.

(The funny thing about this is that I'm sure I have seen smaller versions of this photo -- it's kind of a memorable pose -- but never in a big enough image to see that it was Liberman and not Minick in the car.)
 
Fortunately, I have Coil’s email address, so I forwarded him the picture, and, with amazing recall, he knew exactly when and where the photo was taken (March 1971) and more details about the event, the Spring Funny Car Nationals. I located the article and even found the original Marty Johnson photo in our files. Sensing a column just waiting to be told, I called him to spare his typing fingers, which was when I learned that he, too, had driven the Hustler, and on numerous occasions.

Coil was headed to the grocery store preparing for a casual trip up the coast to Oregon – “I’m so busy doing nothing I can’t hardly get caught up,” he said, clearly not missing the big show. Well, that's not exactly true: “I miss it like a toothache," he said – but chatted with me for a good half-hour on the topic alone, displaying an uncanny memory for details even 40 years later.

Before the 1971 season, Minick had to have hemorrhoid surgery and wasn’t race-ready when the Chi-Town match race bookings began in Jacksonville, Fla., in late February, so Coil hopped into the car to fulfill the date.

“I drove using Minick’s firesuit, which did not fit me worth a [darn] – it wouldn’t even zip up all the way; it’s amazing the stupid [stuff] we’d do sometimes – but I said, 'I’m not driving the thing next week,' so we started looking for drivers for the race in Dallas.

Pat Minick and the Hustler, doin' their thang ...

“Arnie Behling was available, but we remembered that he’d one time turned the Ramchargers car upside down on the return road [trying to make a U-turn] at a match race. Minick knew all about that and didn’t want him to drive it because it was all we had; it wasn’t like we had two or three cars. ‘Jungle’ said, 'Ah, Arnie’s fine; I’ll let him drive my car, and I’ll drive yours. We said, ‘[Heck] yeah!’ ‘Jungle’ was probably one of the most natural drivers ever born. He ended up driving our car and won the race, Behling drove his car and didn’t crash it, so everyone was happy.”

Racing at Southeastern was done on the 1,000-foot distance (another reason Klinger sent the pic), and Liberman beat Richard Tharp and the Blue Max on a holeshot in round one, 6.76 to 6.74, but the other two rounds weren’t reported. The final-round combatants were determined on a points basis, and Liberman squared off against Tommy Grove and took the victory with a 6.65.

Coil and “Jungle,” by the way, were good buddies from crisscrossing the country for years, and the Chi-Town gang would stay at Liberman’s place in Westchester, Pa., while on the East Coast, and Liberman often would camp out at Coil’s place during his Midwest forays.

Coil had actually driven the Charger even before that, in its maiden outing for a four-wide event at Rockford Dragway. The Chi-Town team also brought its predecessor, a Barracuda (which had been sold to Herman Lesmeister, but the team was still in possession of), just in case the new Charger wasn’t up to speed. Minick made checkout passes in the new car in the morning and all was fine, but when one of the other cars didn’t show, track manager Ron Leek asked the Hustler crew to use the old car to round out the quartet.

“Herman wasn’t keen on me driving his car, so Minick drove the old car, and I drove the new car, and everyone survived,” said Coil. Turns out that Coil also had driven the Barracuda on a couple of occasions and had even driven the altered-wheelbase car that Farkonas and Minick had before the Hustler.

A million-mile miracle
Before it was boxed by Austin Coil in the winter of 1975-76, the Chi-Town truck was a conventional ramp truck.

With all of the excitement the last few years about Prudhomme restoring his and Tom McEwen’s ramp trucks, while I had Coil on the line, I asked him whatever became of the notorious Chi-Town Hustler box-style ramp truck that was the team’s trademark through its barnstorming days clear up through its two world championships, when it was an aging anachronism in an era of 18-wheel tractor-trailers and even fifth-wheel Chaparral trailers.

“Last we heard, it belonged to some street-racer bunch in Minneapolis,” said Coil, who figured that they put right around a million miles on the old gal in 17 seasons. “We went through a lot of motors and transmissions and rear ends. I got a lot of truck experience.

“In 1970, we ran 96 match race dates; we probably didn’t make many more runs than a team makes today, but it was three runs here, three runs there, and you spent more time in the truck than at the racetrack. Our most diehard weekend was a Wednesday night date in Cincinnati, a Thursday night  (because it was the Fourth of July) in Martin, Mich., Friday afternoon in Suffolk, Va., and Saturday night and Sunday at Miami-Hollywood [Fla.].”

He also gave me the backstory on the truck, that it originally belonged to Butch Leal, who sold it to Norm Krause (of Mr. Norm fame). Because it was owned by Chrysler when Leal used it, the truck never was titled when Leal had it, so when it was sold to Grand Spaulding Dodge, they titled it as a 1967, but it actually was a 1965. The Chi-Town team bought it in 1968 and ran it through the end of the 1984 season. The truck originally was your typical open-bed ramp truck, but Coil himself constructed the now-famous box in the winter of 1975-76.

So there you have it, the tale of how “Jungle Jim” Liberman and Austin Coil both drove the famed Chi-Town Hustler. File it away under “Things I didn’t know before today,” and hopefully I’ll keep adding to that file for you. See ya next week.