Ahhhh … the threads that keep on delivering. It always amazes me how one subject of a column can lead to another related one and so on. Those of you who have been around this watering hole a long time may remember the long-running wedge dragster thread of 2010 that began innocently enough by my recognizing the passing of NHRA Safety Safari member Ron Rickman, who was famously caught on film dodging the debris from Connie Kalitta’s out-of-control wedge Top Fueler at the 1971 U.S. Nationals. That thread devoured about a dozen columns and had a half-dozen more offshoot to related topics.
And so here we are, four columns after my innocent fanboy retelling of the career of Jake Johnston, which spun into a history of the Wonder Wagon Funny Cars after he told me, in a passing, post-script way, that he drove one of the wagons for a short time, which led to your questions last week, and today, a more thorough look at those wacky Vega panel wagon Funny Cars.
Cliff Morgan asked last week if I knew where any of the original Vega panel bodies had ended up, and I did not, but Dan Glover does. He not only had one but raced it, too. Glover says that this body, which ran on his bracket entry for years at Orange County Int’l Raceway, was the Wonder Wagon body originally used by Kelly Brown. Glover says he got it from an employee of Cragar, who had purchased the car for use on its cold-air experiment. (I quizzed him on that fact because it’s been well documented — here and elsewhere — that it was an ex-Gene Snow chassis that was used in the Cragar testing, but that was what he was told by the guy at Cragar.)
“The body was placed onto a chassis that was mostly built by my partner Gary Bryngelson," he explained. "Gary and I built a chassis at the machine shop where he worked at the time. We used his engine and transmission and rear end. The chassis was a 2X3-inch box with no suspension at all. It really worked well. The car was kept at Gary's house in Yucaipa, Calif., all of its life, where he did most of the work on the car. At times I would travel to Yucaipa to help. I lived in Irvine in an apartment with no garage so having the car there was not an option.
“Gary and I would trade driving duties every other week end for years with Gary's wife, Maureen, working hard as crew chief. As I remember Gary found a buyer for the body at some swap meet I think in San Bernardino and away it went to parts unknown. I believe the chassis went with it as well.
“Gary later found a Corvette Funny Car body up in the Sacramento area and had Norm Porter of NSP Race Cars in Colton, Calif., build a chassis for it. He raced it quite a while and then traded the Corvette body for a roadster body. Turns out that the Corvette body was then bought by John Force and used to build his Wendy's Funny Car for the museum about a year ago.”
Drag racing artist Rick Wilson (http://www.dragracingartprints.com/) says that he remembers visiting a friend’s restoration shop in Kingman, Ariz., in the early 1990s and spying one of the two original Vega Wonder Wagon panel delivery bodies but didn’t have any more details than that. Considering what Glover said above, it would have to have been either the Glenn Way body or one of the three Don Schumacher cars; regardless, it would be amazing that the body stayed that intact for 20 years.
Even though the street version of the Vega panel never sold as good as the popular coupes, they did sell. Sales of the two “Kammback” models (there actually were two styles for consumers to choose from: the wagon, which had windows all around and resembled a station wagon, and the “Panel Express” panel delivery with no rear windows) amounted to nearly a third of all Vegas sold in 1974, the model's peak year for sales (115,337 out of 460,374).
(History note: Both were called "Kammbacks," which is an American term referring to a car body style that derives from the research of the German aerodynamicist Wunibald Kamm in the 1930s and describes a body with smooth contours that continues to a tail that is abruptly cut off. This shape reduces the drag of the vehicle. In Europe, the design is generally known as a Kamm tail or K-tail.)
And even though the coupe far outsold the wagons, there were a surprising number of drag racing entries that utilized the body style. We’ve already talked about the Wonder Wagons, the California Stud of Dave Bowman, the Alabamian of Bill Holt (both rear-engine), and the weird four-wheel-drive car of Gary Gabelich, but who else ran one?
Searching the DragList site (which, curiously, has listings for both “Vega panel” and “Vega wagon”) delivered a combined 113 data entries (comprising about 50 separate cars), most of them either Alcohol (or injected fuel) Funny Cars or Pro Stockers.
Only a few more nitro Funny Cars come to light: the Traveling Texan of Bill Rogers, Steve Tansy’s Godfather, and Bobby Wood of Birmingham, Ala., with the note that the latter crashed his car. I have tons of Bobby Wood photos dating back to the mid-1960s in his file, including a ’73 Vega coupe but no wagon. It must have been really short-lived.
The BB/FCs listed (most with colorful names descriptive of the entries) are Norm Day's Vandal Wagon, Ron Ellis’ Trick Truck, Tim Richards' Tequila Sunrise (no, not that Tim Richards; this one was from Colorado), Dave Kinsel’s Untouchable, Bill McDermott’s Untouchables, Brian Louw’s Banzai, Larry Russell, and the wild Sikora Bros.-built rear-engine War Wagon of Corn and Squeege Jerger (their real names!).
Pro Stockers were run by a few notable names such as Dutch Irrgang, George Weiler, Norwin Palmer, and a bunch of (I’m assuming) local heroes who never made the big scene: Charles Crawford, Ace Kolar, Marc Riney, Bruce Loretitsch, Kenny Hilger, Merle Westergaard, Jim Fegle, and Boyd Williams. Jack Ditmars is listed as having an A/FC Vega panel (but I think it was just misremembered as his stretched rear-engine Vega coupe), as did future Alcohol Dragster star Randy Troxel (a pretty orange car called Radiation), and my old pal Greg Zyla, of Vallco Drag Racing Game fame, had a nice A/EA Vega wagon and, of course, a 20.65-second Vega wagon was Alcohol Funny Car star Todd Veney's first race car.
Gary Watson used a Vega panel body on his Paddy Wagon wheelstander, which was built in 1971 and is still running and owned by Maryland’s Bob Hall. Powered by a blown 454 Chevrolet burning alcohol, the car is one of the longest-running exhibition machines in history. The body was built by Fiberglass Limited in Chicago. Jerry McBee also had a Vega panel wheelstander called Tijuana Toad.
So I’ve spent the last few weeks looking at photos of these Vega panel wagons, when it only suddenly struck me that although they were, from an aerodynamic standpoint, unquestionably not well suited to the track, the driver's view must have been terrible, with no real peripheral vision through a “side” window due to the panel design. It must have been like driving while looking through a cardboard tube.
I called Kelly Brown back to get his memories, and he confirmed that not only was the car difficult to see out of but also tough to get out of in an emergency, due to the small window opening, a fact that he discovered in the nasty fire he had in the car at OCIR.
“The fire had burned the rear tires and chutes off the car, and I slid it to a stop the best I could," he remembered of the fire that was caused when improperly sized breather hoses led to excessive pan pressure that blew out the valve cover gaskets. “We didn’t have the [escape] hatches in the cars yet, so I had to bail out of that little window in the front. It was a small window, but I’ll tell you, when you’re on fire, it doesn’t matter. It had already burned the rubber off of my goggles, melted the bill on my open face helmet, burned all the threads out of my left glove, and burned my leg where the zipper for the boots was.
“That car was so scary to drive — these are the kinds of things a driver remembers — that I never took my left hand off the wheel. I did everything — parachutes, fuel shutoff, fire bottles — with my right hand.”
Not long after compiling the list of Vega panel Funny Cars, I got a note from J.R. Ybarra about a Tucson-area Craigslist posting advertising a Vega panel Funny Car. “I don't know if this car is any of the examples you had written about, but this would be a great project for anyone who wants to take it nostalgia racing,” he noted. The ad read as follows: “74 Vega Panel Wagon Funny Car selling as is, no motor or tranny. Set up for BBC. Comes with headers for BBC, fire bottles, 2 trees, wheelie bars, and driveshaft and couplers for shorty Powerglide. $5,500 OBO.”
Looking at the photos of the primered body, I guessed it was either in the midst of a makeover or somehow was a new mold someone was making.
Well, I couldn’t resist at least calling the guy to see where this body came from, now, could I?
Gary Hoffsmith was more than happy to share his story and had obviously done his homework, too. He had purchased the car from fellow Arizonian Jim Carter, who had been running the car in the CIFCA injected Funny Car circuit under the name Sweet Justice. But as Hoffsmith sanded off Carter’s colors in preparation to apply his own, he found the orange paint and yellow accents that told him it was probably Troxel’s Radiation body.
Hoffsmith never got the chance to run the car himself and put it up for sale. He’s had lots of offers for trade — including some asking if it was one of the Wonder Wagon cars — but no real buyers yet. Wonder if Troxel knows about this?
Finally, I was pleased and surprised to hear back from Bob Kachler, whom I wrote about as one of the ground-floor participants in the creation of the original Wonder Wagon sponsorship. I was pleased to hear that he thought I had accurately portrayed the situation and later sent me a gift package consisting of the image at right, which is a copy of his original idea for the Wonder Wagon (taken, as you will remember, from the cartoonish Deal’s Wheels line made by Revell), as well as a copy of a short children’s book he had written and illustrated, The Story of Willy, the A/Gasser. He also included a fabulous commemorative Lions poster he had made called Remembering Lions Drag Strip, with some great photos of the old place, and not just cars on the racetrack. The poster also includes images of the iconic crossover bridge/tower, the pit-pass booth, concession stands, and more. What pleased even more than that was the handwritten dedication: “To Phil Burgess, a great writer and a great detective.”
Man, I live for this stuff. Thanks to all of you for making this column meaningful and vibrant and, as I said in my opening, helping make each column idea I come up with not just a door to the past but a road to future columns.