NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

So, I heard you guys have been Wondering …

11 Apr 2014
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

Last week’s Wonder Wagon tale delivered a fine response from the Insider Nation, many of whom remember well those cars and some who were lucky to see the Vega panel wagons run in their relatively short life span. By all accounts from the parties involved, I got the story right, which was important, especially when you're dealing with 40-year-old memories and some raw emotions.

Richard Shirley actually had more of a hands-on experience with the Schumacher cars because he worked for Tom Daniels in Elgin, Ill., who we did most of the chassis repair, updates, and so on for Schumacher in that time frame.

He remembers an interesting trait of those Vega panel wagon bodies in general, saying that the roofline would completely collapse at midtrack and would make visibility zero and steering impossible. “The yellow car was so far ahead of its time but weighed a ton and actually turned out to be a slug, but it’s still my favorite!” he added.

Cliff Morgan wondered what ever became of those ill-fated Vega panel bodies. “I saw what I thought was one of them in gray primer, at Speedworld in Phoenix, say 20 years ago, running with the old CIFCA Funny Car group (7.50 index). Does anyone know if they still exist?” I don’t know the answer to Cliff’s question, but I do know that five existed at one time: the two original bodies for Glenn Way and Kelly Brown and the three that Schumacher received when he took over the deal.

There have been several Vega panel wagon Funny Cars over the years, none of which were successful, and most of which also were ill-fated. Gary Gabelich had a wild, four-wheel-drive Vega panel built (with which Bob Kachler had been involved in the beginning), but he destroyed it on its maiden voyage at Orange County Int’l Raceway in early 1972, severely injuring the world’s fastest man in the process. Gabelich was doing burnouts at OCIR, and the throttle reportedly locked down. According to a witness, the car hit both guardrails, rolled several times, and ended up on its side and on fire. He had one hand nearly severed and a broken leg. The hand was reattached, but the one leg was so fractured that the bone was replaced with a steel rod.

Steve Reyes

Dave Bowman had the sometimes-memorable California Stud stretched rear-engine Vega, a car that, when it debuted, was featured in Drag Racing USA (Sept. 1972) under the headline, “Can The California Stud Be For Real?”

Bowman, a truck driver by profession from Yorba Linda, Calif. (hmmm, that sounds kinda familiar), had fielded a fuel altered and a Top Fueler before that, and the names of those mean machines might give you an insight into his personality: Mental Cruelty and Death Cheater. Bowman then bought Gas Ronda’s Funny Car but, apparently in search of more excitement, decided to go the rear-engine route. He and Pete Bagnard built the chassis themselves from a Woody Gilmore design (Gilmore, of course, was the builder of the only truly successful rear-engine car, Jim Dunn’s Barracuda). The body was custom-built at J&E Fiberglass.

Bowman actually scored a runner-up at the OCIR PDA event in 1973 with the weird car. After taking a first-round bye run, he got beat in the second round by “Smokey Joe” Lee but got back in on the break rule and somehow upset Bobby Rowe (who had just left the Schumacher camp for the Mr. Ed ride) in the semifinals, 7.20 to 7.30. Danny Ongais had no problem handling the Stud in the final, though, driving the ex-John Mazmanian Vel’s/Parnelli Jones Barracuda to an easy 6.77 to 7.16 triumph. I read that Bowman later suffered severe injuries in a non-racing-related crash in his 18-wheeler and retired from racing. The car (with an updated nose) ended up as a sand drag race machine, fielded by Pat Parkhurst and renamed Quick Delivery.

Wayne Mahaffey had no more luck than Gabelich, piling up Billy Holt’s Alabamian rear-engine Vega panel on one of its first outings, too.

Insider regular “Chicago Jon” Hofmann also built a Vega panel-bodied Funny Car, but it wasn’t rear-engine nor even full-size.

“I always wanted to see one of the panel wagons, never did. Last year, stumbled onto the AMT panel wagon Funny Car model (actually an Astre) and for the first time since my youth, when I built ‘the car I never saw' in plastic form, and hoped to do better than the kits of mine you featured in Insider previously. I bought the wrong decal sheet from Slixx but made do anyway (like how I ad-libbed the 'hood-slot-decals' into making it a ’74 Vega'?)”

Reader Harry Pearce was watching an old VHS tape of the Last Drag Race at Lions “and there was footage of one of the Vega panels making a qualifying run, and it made it through the quarter-mile with no problem. I was wondering if the car qualified for the field at the Last Drag Race?”

The car, driven by Kelly Brown, did indeed qualify for the field, in the No. 15 spot. There’s no time listed in the National Dragster (or DRUSA) coverage, but the bump was 6.82, so it was probably high 6.70-something. Brown didn’t make it out of round one, though, because the car wouldn’t come out of reverse after the burnout, and Billy Meyer got a bye run.

Michael Hedworth wrote in to ask, "I remember for at least one season after the Wonder Bread deal ended with Schumacher that there were the Revell Super Shoe cars, which included Don driving a yellow one.”

Right you are. After running the low-rider Wonder Wagon Vega coupe for a relatively few events (it debuted at Indy 1973 and was done before the start of 1974), the Wonder deal ended, and Schumacher fielded another slick but more conventional slat-nose Vega in 1974, his final year as a driver. The car, shown in this photo, was still a lowrider, minus the flow-through body, but it did retain a huge cowl scoop in front of the blower (this 1974 Winternationals promo photo — Schumacher was the defending event champ — was shot at exactly the wrong angle to show that).

The car is best remembered for its outing at that year’s Gatornationals, when the body came unhinged in qualifying after a large wheelstand and flipped over the chassis, cracking it at the rear wheelwells. Schumacher and company repaired the body overnight and reached the final round Sunday, only to fall to Don Prudhomme. You can find a sequence of photos of that incident, and other bodywork the car received in a tumultuous season, in the “More Cars With Scars” column I wrote back in November 2011.

Michael Anderson, who was able to see Schumacher’s original Wonder Wagon at an IHRA race in Lakeland, Fla., remembered seeing Johnny Gray drive a Wonder Wagon tribute car a few years ago and wanted to know if Wonder Bread was involved in that effort.

That car, which did not enjoy any sponsorship bread, was driven by Gray at the final six events of 2004, beginning with the U.S. Nationals. Gray had joined the Schumacher team just a few weeks earlier, agreeing to run an R&D car for the team to help the championship pursuit of DSR drivers Gary Scelzi and Whit Bazemore.

"To be able to bring out a nostalgia car that thousands of fans ask me about all the time is just great," Schumacher said at the time. "It was a very unique car back in its day. The aerodynamic design and other innovations we made to the car to help advance the sport of NHRA Drag Racing really opened up a lot of eyes and changed the way Funny Cars were run from then on.”

Dan Olson, who was the co-crew chief on Bazemore's Matco Tools Iron Eagle Dodge Stratus and Gary Scelzi's Hemi-powered Oakley Dodge Stratus, was the crew chief. They qualified the Dodge Stratus at all six races but didn’t get a round-win, and although he lost to each once in the first round, he also couldn’t help Scelzi or Bazemore stop John Force from winning his fourth championship in five years.

Thanks for the great questions, guys. By the time you read this, I’ll be in Charlotte for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals. This is the fifth year of the Four-Wide national event and the sixth time zMAX Dragway has done this, counting the exhibition Four-Wide in September 2009. When that extravaganza took place, I dug through the archives for some cool photos in a column I wrote back then, showing some pretty cool four-wide racing from back in the day, including jets! You can check that column out here.

I’ll see you next week.