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The Cassidy brothers

21 Feb 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
(Above) The Cassidy brothers, John, third from left, and Les, third from right, made a lot of fans on the East Coast in the 1970s with their Funny Cars, including their rare Grand Am-bodied alky burner (below). Sharp-eyed race fans might be able to pick out other familiar faces in the photo above, including Nick Boninfante, center, and respected machinist John "Indian" Morgan, far right.

I may have mentioned a time or two (or maybe 20) that I was a big fan of the rare Grand Am Funny Car bodies of the 1970s, which is why I always had a special place in my heart for an East Coast car and a team that I never saw race, the New Jersey-based Cassidy brothers.

Brothers Les and John first competed in Top Alcohol Funny Car, first with a Barracuda, then with a Grand Am before making the leap to nitro in 1976, and they more than held their own in the tough Division 1 wars. Les, the driver, passed away in 2004 and “Big John” joined his younger brother at the great dragstrip in the sky this past Monday, passing away after a decades-long battle with diabetes.

The sad news came to me from longtime Insider follower Franklin Amiano, who was a crewmember on the brothers’ team over the years, and was able to offer some background on their efforts over the years.

According to Amiano, the brothers campaigned a number of cars over the years, including a ’32 Bantam-bodied fuel altered named Heaven Express that Les began driving when he was just 16. They stretched the altered’s chassis to Funny Car length and added a Barracuda body for a car that became the first of a series of Sundance Kid machines. They ran the blown Donovan-powered 'Cuda as an outlaw (at the time) blown alcohol Funny Car on Tom "Smoker" Smith's East Coast Fuel Funny Car Circuit.

As their skills progressed so did their cars. A new S&W chassis was commissioned and "Rapid Red” Lang called Mickey Thompson, who owned the mold for the Grand Am, and put in a good word for the brothers, who then had their own beautiful Grand Am that was circuit raced up and down the East Coast and was “a middle of the pack qualifier” at East Coast national events, according to Amiano.

The brothers had impressive immediate success when they switched to nitro (“after the usual learning curve, which included the addition of seven fire bottles and trucker-chain restraints on the blower!” recalls Amiano).

In one of their first outings with pop in the tank, they were runner-ups to “Jungle Jim” Liberman at Maple Grove Raceway’s NHRA WCS event and hit the East Coast match race scene hard. Before long they won their first match race, beating Gary Burgin (twice) and then AHRA world champ Tom Hoover in the final at eight-car Englishtown, then were runner-up to Raymond Beadle’s Blue Max the following weekend at the IHRA Pro Am at Rockingham, N.C. Later that year, they ran the quickest nitro-powered Donovan pass in history, a 6.18, at New England Dragway and closed out the year with a runner-up to Shirl Greer in Florida.

(Above) The brothers went nitro racing in 1976 with this Monza and won the Division 1 championship the following year. (Below) The Cassidys swept the Division 2 Winter Series in 1977 with their Mother's Performance Corvette.

“By 1977, they were on a roll,” recalls Amiano. “Combining a trick match race combination, a new, lighter Monza body, and Les' razor-sharp reaction times, they squared off the best touring gunners in the country with extremely impressive results. Over the next couple of years, they managed to beat (at least once) every top name Funny car in the country, except Prudhomme and the Blue Max.”

Amiano recalls that Les beat Gary Burgin six times before Burgin finally got a W against them, but “Big John” didn’t give Burgin much time to gloat. “John went over to Burgin, put his arm over Burgin's shoulder, and told him, ‘The crankshaft and cylinder heads are older than the driver. What did you beat?’ "

The brothers never ventured far westward but ran all up and down the East Coast — their motto was "Montreal to Miami" — running both Division 1 and 2. They won the Division 1 crown and probably would have won Division 2, but, according to Amiano, backed off to allow Billy Meyer to win the title to gather points to compete at the World Finals. The Cassidys also swept the Winter Rebel Series, winning both the Snowbird National Open and the Turkey Trot Nationals. Les also owns the distinction of being the last driver to square off in competition against Liberman before his fatal auto accident in September 1977.

From 1974 to 1978, the brothers famously hauled their race car inside an old school bus that “Big John” had bought from a guy who had used it to haul a show car.

“It was still yellow, everything inside was gutted, but it had ramps and a Ryder truck back door,” recalls Amiano. “At the time, I was helping Joe Siti put together the original Philadelphia Flyer Monza (I named it!), so John and Les drove the bus to Joe's Custom Paint Shack and we painted it Coca-Cola red and white. Johnny finished off the inside like a motorhome with bunks, closets, and a 12-volt refrigerator. I installed the 8-track stereo.

“At the Maple Grove points race, when Lester beat ‘Jungle’ for the win, he wasn't even booked in. That was a Frank LeSeur show, but Mike Lewis told Johnny, ‘If you guys want to come out, whatever you win is yours.’ At the track, John and Les went over to Frank LeSeur to ask about getting booked in; Frank told them: ‘I don't book no school bus acts.’ That really hurt Lester's feelings and made him mad. He proceeded to march through Frank's cars, finally meeting ‘Jungle’ in the final. The bus is now being used as a storage shed in Jackson, N.J.”

The brothers raced together through the early 1980s, and Les became a hired driver for a few years after that. They finally sold the race car operation and started a taxi cab company in the Florida Keys, and life was pretty good, according to Amiano, until Les’ 2004 passing at age 50 under very sad circumstances.

“Les was on his way to see his son, Lester Jr., for Junior’s birthday when apparently he had a stroke,” said Amiano. “He finally made it to his ex-wife's house but very late. Junior had fallen asleep on the couch waiting for his dad. Les' ex told him to go sleep in Junior’s room and they'd sort everything out in the morning. When Junior went in to wake up Les in the morning, Les was dead. He had a heart attack in his sleep and died in his son's bed, on his son's birthday. How sad is that?

“ ‘Big John’ soldiered on, dealing with the complications of diabetes. He remained upbeat and optimistic until the very end. The stories of the Cassidy bros.' antics are legendary. You'll hear them whenever old fuel racers gather. Guys like Tommy Ivo, Dale Pulde, Nick Boninfante Sr., and ‘the Greek’ all have their own personal favorites.”

I’m sure they’re not alone in thinking of the Cassidy bros. as favorites, especially among the legion of East Coast fans who rooted for them against the big dogs in the 1970s.