Happy New Year everyone, and welcome to the first DRAGSTER Insider column of 2012. I hope you enjoyed time off with your family, that all of your Christmas wish-list dreams were fulfilled, and that you’re ready for another year of shedding light on the sometimes-darkened corners of the history of our sport and embracing our overall need for speed.
Before we set sail for new and previously uncharted places, my Inbox is overflowing with notes received from the Insider Nation over the holidays on multiple subjects that we covered late last year, so I’ll work my way through those first, then we’ll get on with The Big Show next week. Again, a huge dose of gratitude to everyone who communicates with me to share thoughts and photos and contribute to this wonderful column. Each one is a gift to the sport.
Late last year, Joe Faraci emailed a question about rear-engine Funny Cars, citing a report in the September 1971 issue of Car Craft that a famed Armenian racer was planning to field one. We speculated that the racer in question was the late John Mazmanian, but “Big John’s” son, Vic, was kind enough to drop me a line telling me that he had never heard his dad talk about having one of the breed. “It must have been some speculation from Car Craft,” he assessed.
Tom Gambardella’s photos of his 5/8th-scale rear-engine Funny Car, one of many designed and built by New York-based Umbro Engineering in the mid-1970s, reminded John Francis of one of the most unusual applications of the mini floppers: Larry Nagel’s Pocket Rocket rocket car, which he campaigned in 1980 and 1981.
According to what Francis could find, Nagel’s best efforts in the car were 6.57 and 247 mph. The car is special to Francis because he now owns the body – which sat in a field for many years – and built a chassis for it (the original chassis, he said, is in Don Garlits’ museum in Florida), and he has dreams of putting a small jet engine in it. “Right now, it’s just sitting in the house for a display piece until I get the gumption and cash to work on it again,” he noted
Insider friend Bob Snyder sent the photo at right of the previously mentioned Chevoom rear-engine car once campaigned by Maynard Rupp. As you can see, the car lives on, albeit in somewhat rough shape. The car is owned by a friend of his in Gettysburg, Pa., who has plans “someday” to restore it. Still very cool to see that the old gal lives on.
I also heard from “BackMotor Mike” Puzycki, who campaigns one of the few rear-engine Funny Cars still in competition. I had erroneously reported that he ran the car on the Great Lakes Nostalgia Funny Car Circuit. “I am friends with the GLNFC guys, but they are too far away from us to run with them,” he corrected. “Shame, too; we have a lot to offer their group. We do run with the Open Outlaws group in Florida and hang out with and pick up an occasional match race date with the Southern Slingshots group; again, we all have similar performance, just packaged differently."
Puzycki went on to report that his chassis was originally designed for an A/Fuel Dragster and that the team pushed the engine/roll cage rearward to make the foot area (crash box) longer and beefier. Power comes from a 496-cid big-block Chevy on 25 percent nitro, with projected eighth-mile performances this year in the mid-fours.
Tom Kristy wrote to report that he once owned the Slack & Hallman rear-engine Mustang Funny Car shown recently. “It was built by Lee Austin,” he said. “I acquired it in a trade for a street car with Tom Motry (of Drastic Plastic fame) but never got to race it. The car was called Rare Breed when I got it. I sold it to a local racer, who bracket raced it in the Chicago area for a few years. He stretched the chassis and cut a hole in the windshield so that the driver’s helmet was where the injector would be on a conventional Funny Car. The first time I saw the car after he stretched it, he was staging the car at U.S. 30; at first glance, it looked like he converted it to front-engine till he moved his head and what appeared to be an injector turned out to be his helmet.”
In a story-tale turn, shortly after I received Kristy's email, Laura Bruederle sent the image here, which I'm guessing is one of hubby Mark’s photos and which I'm also guessing is the ex-Slack & Hallman car as described above. According to Laura, Bret Kepner identified the car as belonging to Joe Rutschman, who ran it in BB/FC fairly regularly at U.S. 30 in the mid-1970s. There we go again, connecting the dots of drag racing history. ...
In a similar “where it went” vein, Bob Pritchard emailed me to claim current ownership of the Beaver Hunter fuel altered once campaigned by John Force before he hopped into the Night Stalker. Pritchard found and purchased the car in October.
And finally, among the crush of email I got regarding John Hoven’s well-written remembrance of his dad – “the story that just keeps giving,” he told me in regard to the influx of mail from admirers of his father’s career – came correspondence from Tony Brewer, who has done some vintage race-car restoring of his own, including of an old Mustang Funny Car that turned out to be Hoven’s Mach I. According to Brewer, the car was used by the late Susie Wells to get her Top Alcohol Funny Car license. He was approached at one of the NHRA Hot Rod Reunions by one of Hoven’s former crewmembers, who recognized the car by a couple of trademark Hoven pieces. “He could not get over how great and unbutchered condition it was in, right down to the pull hook John had placed on the front axle back in '71,” said Brewer, “and, yes, it still had all of its purple anodized parts and pieces. You know the guy begged me to sit in it and then ran off yelling that he was going to come back with Hoven! That was the last I saw of him. I told my partners that I would consider selling it back to John if he would have showed up. I toyed with the idea of selling it a couple of times all the while picking up parts to possibly restore it. I even dragged it down to the big NHRA meet here in Phoenix. I was wrenching on the Mr. Magoo car, and Don Sosenka dared me to bring the old Hoven chassis down and try to have it certified, which I did, and NHRA did certify it after a few very small updates, which shows how ahead of his time Hoven actually was with his car.”
Larry Solger passed along two photos of Hoven’s beautiful car, both taken at Fremont when Tom Ferraro was the shoe. The pit shot in the previous paragraph shows just how beautifully purple the car was, and I dig the race shot, with Jerry Ruth’s Pay ‘n’ Pak Mustang hiking the front tires and smoking the rear meats in vintage early ‘70s Funny Car style. Pat “Ma” Green remembers Hoven from her days working at Fremont. “We lived just across the freeway from the track,” she said. “We got acquainted with Ferraro and Hoven, and they would stay at our house when running Fremont. Their usual arrival time was about 3 a.m. Saturday morning, since they left L.A. after work on Friday. One night, as I opened the door in my bathrobe, Tom says, ‘We found these guys wandering around the track and told them they could stay at your house.’ Turned out it was Radici & Wise from St. Louis, who became wonderful friends. John Hoven was a wonderful man, and we always enjoyed having them all at our house.” Mike Hedworth passed along the photo here of Hoven’s Midnight Special Satellite, which crashed at OCIR with Denny Savage at the wheel. I believe that both cars also were driven by Grant Meredith, who was one of the many people who wrote to Hoven.
Our good modeling friend across the pond, British uber enthusiast Marc Gredzinski, sent the photo at right, showing what he’s been up to. “Although I've been quiet recently, I have in fact been busy behind the scenes researching and steadily building,” he reported. “Every day in fact. My Crower injection system is done, and the master models for this and others can be seen in my Facebook albums. At the moment, I'm scratch-building Donovan and 392 Chrysler engine blocks as the Revell ones are inaccurate. I'm doing 10 at once, and four will be used to make molds (in 1/16th- and 1/25th-scales) to do accurate California Charger and Beebe and Mulligan rails/funnies, amongst others. I've been so much on the go I can't tell you, but the enclosed pic of my 1/25th Charger Funny Car is one of my latest with over 500 parts made for it. I'll send a pic when it’s done.”
To the continuing saga of what happened to Don Prudhomme’s original yellow Hot Wheels 'Cuda after it was owned by Ken Poffenberger, Franklin Amiano adds, “The remains of that chassis wound up in a pile behind Poff's shop for many years. The body got tossed up on the roof of Lou Inzio's body shop in Paterson, N.J. After Poff died, somebody from Michigan(?) bought what was left of the body and chassis. That's the last I heard of it.”
I’ve had an ongoing email debate with veteran SoCal racegoer/photographer Robert Nielsen about the infamous Beach City Corvette burndown and who was behind the wheel. Popular myth had it that it was Gary Gabelich because that fact has been reported on many websites (including his own), but I’ve proven time and again through various testimonials and other links that it was in fact Ronnie Goodsell. Well, Nielsen finally (and graciously) called uncle.
“OK, you are right (as usual), and I am wrong (not too unusual) about the driver of the Beach City Corvette when it met its untimely demise when it ended up out on the freeway after a massive engine failure and fire at OCIR. It was, indeed, as you (and your sources) indicated, Ron Goodsell driving. Drag News Volume 15, Number 38 had coverage of the March 28, 1970, OCIR All-Pro Finale. This article says, ‘During qualifying, Ron Goodsell in the Beach City Corvette amazed all on a 200.33 charge for funny car top speed.’ Later in the article, it says, ‘Goodsell (illegible) against Don Hampton on what has to be a run he’ll never forget. 7.74 seconds later at 196.27 mph, Goodsell’s car erupted into flames, veered off track (illegible) through the trees and fences and comes to a stop a full half-mile from the finish line. The car was completely destroyed with Goodsell receiving only minor burns on his hands and legs. Hampton ran 7.89, 193.50 in the twin-engine Corvette for the win.’ The article makes no note of the CHP citing Goodsell for any traffic violation – but again, the myth says he was cited for any number of different violations depending on the story that is told. I hereby solemnly vow to not ever question you again – at least until the next time.
“The one thing that I found most interesting when looking for this article in Drag News was that Hampton was running a twin-engine Corvette Funny Car. I guess that I had not heard of this, or at least do not remember hearing about them. Dual-engine dragsters, be they Top Fuel dragsters, Top Gas dragsters, and even a couple of twin-engine in-line six-cylinder dragsters were quite common. How about a follow-on to your rear-engine (really mid-engine) Funny Car articles about these twin-engine Funny Cars!”
Funny you should mention that, Robert, as in the midst of the rear-engine mania, good pal Dennis Friend, who runs the authoritative Two To Go website that concerns itself with nothing but dual-engine cars, sent the photos at right of three such animals, the American Bandstand Corvette of Hampton (which began life as the Dye & Hampton AA/Comp dragster; side-by-side small-block Chevy power), Dean Dillingham’s A&W Root Beer Special Nova (twin Chevy small-blocks, inline), and Junior Brogdon’s Phony Pony Mustang (injected small-block Fords inline). According to Danny White, Hampton’s eye-catching Corvette was destroyed in a 1974 accident in Australia, where it T-boned Bob Shepherd in Jim Read’s Chesterfield’s Mustang. You can find more on the Hampton car here.
Another blast from the past came from Glenn Gaskey, whose dad, Leo, campaigned the popular Killer Whale A/FC at SoCal tracks in the 1970s and later partnered with Tom Ridings on the ex- Littlefield & Sublett Air Force-sponsored Vega. Gaskey remembers living in Long Beach, Calif., one street over from Jack Chrisman when he had the sidewinder Mustang. “Me and my dad would go over to Jack’s house a lot, and I remember that chain-driven sidewinder,” he wrote. “My dad worked with Dee Keaton and Ed Lenarth on the waterfront for many years and also became very good friends with Mickey Thompson. Many of Mickey's experimental Funny Car parts made their way onto my dad's old A/FC. His motor was basically a copy of Gene Adams' little Hemi that they had in their dragster. I was a very lucky little drag-race-loving kid. We had Bill Tidwell and Linda Vaughn over at our house for dinner, I got to meet Joe Pisano, Joe Mondello, Sush Matsubara, Jim Dunn, Joe Reath, and Herm Petersen. Just prior to our A/FC crashing at Irwindale, my dad had bought Joe Winters’ Funny Car from him along with a 'Cuda body (not the Mustang). I think Joe lived in the [San Fernando] Valley somewhere (I was only about 10 years old then). Got to spend some time with my dad this Christmas; he lives near Bristol now, and I'm still in Cali, so we haven't spent a Christmas together in years, but he still loves drag racing. If you see a 38-foot motorhome at an NHRA race that says Nitro Chasers on the back, that is him. Go say hi, he has plenty of fuel for your column.”
Gaskey’s touching Christmas story gives me the opportunity to share my own bit of holiday magic. As I mentioned before the holidays, I was going to drive up to Santa Rosa to spend Christmas with the family at my sister’s house. As the gifts were handed out, my 81-year-old stepfather, Lee -- who came into my life when I was 9, shortly after I had lost my birth father, and became the father I always hoped I’d be – handed me a very heavy gift. “This is all I have left from my dad, and I want to give it to you,” he said, choking up a bit.
I tore off the wrapping paper to reveal a very old metal box. As I popped it open, the unmistakable smell of machine oil wafted into my nostrils, and my eyes beheld a set of vintage expansion reamers. There was a note explaining the story behind them.
“In 1937, Lee built a Soap Box Derby car. He needed axles for it and found what he thought were just the right things to use, and they worked out real well. Sometime later, his dad was looking over the car, nodding with approval, until he realized what Lee had used for the axles – his prized expansion reamers that had taken him six months to pay for at Montgomery Ward. Needless to say, he reclaimed them as well as a piece of Lee’s backside. He later gave Lee some bolts to use instead and told Lee never to take anything from his garage again. These reamers are all that Lee has left of his dad’s tools, and he thought you might like to have them, as you would have an appreciation for what they are and what they represent.”
I was touched beyond words, but not beyond tears. I hope you had as wonderful a Christmas as I did.
I’ll see you next week.