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What became of the original yellow 'Cuda?

15 Jul 2011
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

I knew this would come up one day – I just didn’t know it would be two years later – but now seems to be about the perfect time considering the recent subject matter concerning Don Prudhomme and Barracudas. It may give you an excellent idea of what we drag racing historians do in our spare time and how the community can pull together to solve mysteries. Or deepen them.

It has been well-documented here and in other places that the yellow Barracuda in Prudhomme’s collection is the twin car built by Ronnie Scrima of Exhibition Engineering at the same time he built the Hot Wheels 'Cuda that “the Snake” ran in 1970. The twin was built for display in Chrysler’s Rapid Transit display, and, to be honest, I’m not sure if it ever raced. So, what became of the original race-driver 'Cuda? Good question.

Being the email pack rat that I am, I rooted through my old messages to dig up an email thread I had with fellow drag racing history nut Bret Kepner on this very subject. Several others ended up embroiled in the discussion/debate, and reviewing all of the emails, it looks as if we came to a clear conclusion. Oh sure, I could just cut to the chase and tell you what became of it, but what fun would that be? I'll unroll it as it happened, so you can see that our first assumptions and assertions aren't always correct.

So set the Wayback Machine to – oddly enough -- two years ago to this day, July 15, 2009. I got a phone call from former Funny Car driver Tom Hall, who took issue with Prudhomme’s version of the 'Cuda’s demise. ND Photo Editor Teresa Long and I had visited “the Snake” a few weeks earlier to shoot his collection of cars and take a ride in the then-freshly restored yellow ramp truck, and in my recap of that memorable day, Prudhomme told us that he had sold the original 'Cuda to Sammy Miller, who had wrecked it.

Hall insisted that Miller and Ken Poffenberger had bought it and that Poffenberger did run the car off the end of the track at Utica-Rome Sept. 11, 1971 (Hall knew the date because it was the weekend of his wedding, which is why Poffenberger was driving). "The car was rebuilt by Logghe, and the body was salvaged, and I drove it for two years up and down the East Coast until I blew it apart at Atco,” claimed Hall. “I blew the motor out of her and had a horrible fire. I pretty much destroyed the body. The car was called Mr. Natural.”

Kepner, ever the lover of underdogs, has an exceptional memory about obscure car/driver combinations, so he was my first stop on the confirmation tour.

“While Poffenberger did, indeed, run the car off the end of Utica-Rome, based on photos I've seen, I believe the damage was contained to the front axle and the front end of the body,” he stated. “I was always under the impression that the chassis remained in circulation long after its life as a fuel car. I vaguely remember hearing the chassis was still under one of the [East Coast Fuel Funny Car Circuit] cars in the mid-'70s. Tommy Hall did drive for Poffenberger; he previously made a few laps in Gary Richards' '70 Mustang AA/FC (the black car that was runner-up at the '70 Summernationals at York with Vic Brown driving), but I was under the assumption the Mr. Natural 'Cuda was a brand-new '72 version and not the remnants of Prudhomme's '70 car."

I mentioned to Kepner that Hall had told me the chassis had been repaired by the Logghe brothers and that the car and body carried on.

“Trust me,” he replied emphatically. “The Mr. Natural body is not Prudhomme's '70 'Cuda. The '70 'Cuda body was a heavyweight featuring molded grille, headlights, taillights, and even door openings. The Mr. Natural body was a classic '72 lightweight with flat nose (airbrushed grille, etc.). There’s no question though the yellow [Super Puffer] 'Cuda is Prudhomme's '70 model.”

One telltale feature of the original 'Cuda body is the molded rear spoiler. According to Willie Wolter, who researched and restored the Prudhomme 'Cuda, originally (as you can see in early photos of the car), there was a spoiler on the roof, just ahead of the rear window, put there by a Chrysler engineer, but the car tended to wheelstand at half-track, so they were moved to the back deck, which is how the restored 'Cuda looks. You can see these on the photos of the Super Puffer.

A couple of weeks later, I received an email from Jeff Mittendorf, whose fabulous Hot Wheels collection has been featured here, also asking for details of the 'Cuda’s demise. He pointed me to a DragRacingOnline story about Miller. That story reported that Miller drove Poffenberger’s Poff's Puffer Corvair Funny Car in 1970 and continued, “Towards the end of the year, Miller decided he wanted his own Funny Car. Enlisting the aid of his father Sam, who owned a construction company, he bought Don Prudhomme's Hot Wheels 1970 Barracuda and set up a rigorous schedule for 1971. … He ran the Prudhomme Barracuda only a few times before he wanted something more state of the art.” It doesn’t mention any involvement by Poffenberger with the 'Cuda, but maybe that’s supposed to be understood?

Mittendorf also pointed me to a page on the 70sfunnycars.com site, whose info generally comes very reliably from 1970s Funny Cars expert Danny White. “Ken Poffenberger bought this famed 'Cuda as a used car from Don Prudhomme. The 'Cuda ended Poffenberger’s string of Chevrolet-powered Funny Cars that began with a match-bash Chevelle. Woody Gilmore ["built"? word missing on page] the 'Cuda for Don Prudhomme as his first Funny Car. By 1971, the face of Funny Car was changing quickly, and Prudhomme built a new, lighter Funny Car. Poffenberger bought the year-old Funny Car and took it back East to match race with the best the Northeast had to offer. Sammy Miller, Tom Hall, and Poffenberger all drove the Hemi-powered Funny Car. The car ran low sevens at 200 mph plus. Poffenberger parked the car when the costs got too high.”

More confusion to the issue. First, I’m not sure where Danny got the Woody Gilmore part because the car definitely was built by Scrima. When Wolter found the second car, he had the SFI chassis tags checked out both by Scrima and Carl Olson at SEMA, where records still exist on decades-old cars. Danny says Poffenberger bought it, DRO says Miller. The rest of the info seems correct as we know it.

Two weeks later, enter into the discussion Dennis Doubleday, who also has a pretty good background in early Funny Cars and included the images at right of the car after Poffenberger’s crash. “It happened at Utica-Rome, N.Y., in June of 1971, and Poffenberger suffered hand and ankle injuries. Sam Miller was well on his way to running his own new Duster at this point. Tom Hall did crash a Poffenberger Barracuda, but that happened in 1973. He had a fire at Atco, had minor burns, but burned the body off. Poffenberger had a Logghe car in 1972, so I suspect the Hall-fire car was the Logghe car.” (Doubleday has a copy of the July 16, 1971, Drag Times that reports the date of Poffenberger’s Utica-Rome crash as June 26, 1971, not Sept. 11 as Hall stated.)

All of that begins to make more sense. I had wondered why Poffenberger and Hall would have Logghe repair a Scrima chassis; so perhaps Hall may simply have confused the two? I copied Kepner on Doubleday’s info, which only raised more questions. I was quickly getting a headache.

“Weird!” Kepner mused. “The photo from Dennis throws an entirely new paint scheme into the discussion! We already know the yellow car AND the Mr. Natural car were damaged. Does this constitute a third crash?”

At which point, with the skill and patience of a trial lawyer handling his summation to the jury, Doubleday presented, with photos, a timeline of the 'Cuda, which is presented below (apologies and thanks to all whose photos are included herein). It begins, as you can see, with the original “Snake” 'Cuda (with roof spoiler) and versions of the car (and McEwen’s Duster) without the roof spoilers.

He then transitions us to the car after it left Prudhomme’s hands. We see what appears to be the car sponsored by Miller’s family construction business (as outlined in the DRO article) from a National DRAGSTER clipping. The angle of that photo makes it hard to see if the stars are on the roof, hood, and back deck as they were on Prudhomme’s car and as they are shown about a month later in Pomona. You’ll see the car in a couple of different paint schemes, including the one that Poffenberger crashed (the car was not yellow anymore, as Kepner had assumed), then the Mr. Natural car that seems to have a different body but perhaps the same chassis.

hoff1.jpg


Don Prudhomme with the roof spoiler in 1970

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Shortly after the roof spoiler went away. Squint real hard and use your imagination, and you can see the primer. Feb. 14, 1970, Drag News

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This is “the ‘Goose,” who also had his roof spoiler removed, same weekend, same issue of Drag News. You can see the patch more clearly.

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“Snake” car now with rear spoiler and a good shot of the Scrima chassis

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Late in 1970, Prudhomme had a new Buttera car built and painted it like the first car to finish the season.

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Early 1971. Ken Poffenberger has purchased the car, Sam Miller is driving/sponsoring, pretty sure Poff owns it though. Stardust Dragstrip, Las Vegas. Feb. 26, 1971, National DRAGSTER

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Feb. 28 at 1971 Winternationals; stars on roof show this clearly is the old Prudhomme car

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Exactly one month later; new paint. Miller still driving

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Paint scheme now with flames, and if you compare this chassis with the 1970 "Snake" photo (photo 4), they are one and the same.

hoff10.jpg


Late 1971, Tom Hall driving. This is definitely not the original "Snake" body. There is a Logghe decal on this car, and a magazine article on the car credits Logghe for the chassis. However, Logghe could have repaired the old Scrima chassis. Note the difference in the side tin from the original.

hoff11.jpg


Now it is 1973, the Atco season opener. The car is now Mr. Natural.

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At Atco after fire. The original 'Cuda body's last run?

After studying all of the photos that Doubleday provided, Kepner backpedaled a bit on his initial claims about the body.

“I honestly believe (based on the rear window and the interior bulkheads) the body was the original yellow '70 'Cuda even into the Mr. Natural phase,” he said. “When Hall mentioned ‘the body was salvaged,’ that clinched it for me. Let's face it, Poff managed to keep those damned Prudhomme-initiated Keystone Cragar SS wheels on the front for four years. Prudhomme's high-dollar magnesium rear Halibrands can be seen obviously damaged in the Utica-Rome shots. That would account for the only variation in the entire package (other than paint and front/rear clips), which was the addition of new chromed rear wheels, which appeared after the Utica-Rome incident. 

“The molded front end was obviously replaced with the flat, airbrushed version after Utica-Rome, and the rear clip (identifiable by the molded taillights and '70-model vertical bumpers) was probably replaced several times. Note where the break in the body occurs on the front after the NYNS crash; it's right at the leading edge of each front wheelwell where the heavy molded front end would have been affixed to the main body. In the Mr. Natural NYNS aftermath shots, the rear fascia would never have come out in one piece unless the body was a multi-piece molding, common in '68-'70.
 
“Moreover, the car retains trunk indentation lines. That's also something the true '71-'74 'Cudas almost always lacked, but Prudhomme's '70 had indentations, all the way to drip moldings, throughout. Although it's difficult to tell, it also seems the later versions retained the yellow car's trademark injector opening in which the Plexiglas windshield orifice was substantially smaller than the interior aluminum work opening."

Doubleday also pointed out that the 1974 'Cuda had a full-width rear spoiler as opposed to the split spoiler that Prudhomme had run and that was on the Poffenberger car through 1972. This could have been explained by a back-half job after either the Utica-Rome incident or the Atco fire. You can see that the yellow body has the split spoiler molded right onto the truck, and the red body has a full-width spoiler molded to the rear deck and a pair of extension flaps.

In conclusion, we would seem to agree that the original Prudhomme/Scrima chassis was used until the team got a new Logghe chassis for the 1974 season, and perhaps it had taken the Scrima chassis to Logghe for repairs after Poffenberger’s crash, which led to the later usage of a Logghe car. Seems plausible, as the MythBusters would say. The body, extensively repaired front and back, may well have been run until the Atco fire, where it appears heavily damaged and perhaps not salvageable, backing up Hall’s assertion.

The original chassis may indeed still be out there in circulation, but at 40 years and thousands of passes, probably not likely. The body may well have been disposed of or cut up by fans who probably don’t know they’re holding on to a little of drag racing history beneath the multiple paint schemes.

The floor is open for discussion.