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Front to back: The rear-engine transition, Part 2

27 Feb 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Don Garlits showed that the rear-engine design was here to stay with a powerful victory at the 1971 NHRA Winternationals.

Although rear-engine Top Fuelers had found some limited success in 1970, it was Don Garlits’ powerful victory at the 1971 Winternationals that really turned the tide in favor of the new design. After scoring runner-ups at Lions Drag Strip and Orange County Int’l Raceway in the weeks preceding the Winternationals, “Big Daddy” put the detractors to rest in Pomona the first week of February.

As previously reported, a lot of people were looking askance and rolling their eyes at his Swamp Rat 14 when he rolled it out of the trailer at Lions a few weeks before the Winternationals, including, according to him, fellow chassis builders Woody Gilmore and Don Long. “It was funny,” he shared with me. “Both of these builders looked at my car at Lions, and I personally heard them tell customers that they could see right away what I was doing wrong.” According to Garlits, Don Prudhomme took a walk around the car and dismissively remarked, “Well, that’s one way to get publicity.”

Garlits also says that no one wanted to make time-trial runs next to him at Lions and was told by Lions manager C.J. Hart – who had witnessed Pat Foster’s terrifying tumble in December 1969 -- that if he crossed any of the barrier lines, the car would have to go back into the trailer. Garlits put all that aside, was runner-up to Gary Cochran’s slingshot, then duplicated that feat the next weekend at Orange County Int’l Raceway before heading to Pomona for the car’s official coming out.

Garlits didn’t initially have the quickest machine in Pomona, where the tight 32-car field was separated by just .33-second, perhaps thanks to traction compound that had been sprayed – via helicopter! – on the track Thursday. Norm Wilcox qualified No. 1 in "Terrible Ted" Gotelli's Northern California-based entry with a 6.70, just ahead of the surprise 6.73 from John Nichols in Jerry Dee Hagood's locally based Spartan Charger. Henry Harrison’s 6.76 at 223.32 (top speed of the meet) in the Ewell & Bell digger was third, just ahead of the 6.77 clocked by Pete Robinson, who was killed in an accident on the pass after his innovative ground-effects system malfunctioned.

Garlits was just the No. 9 qualifier with a mid-6.80 pass, but that all changed in eliminations. After a middling 6.85 win over Tommy Allen in round one – Harrison’s stunning 6.61 against Ronnie Martin was tops for the round, and the meet -- Garlits had low e.t. of the next three rounds, running a pair of 6.72s to beat Nichols and Carl Olson and then a 6.70 to beat Jim Dunn in the semifinals. Garlits’ final-round opponent, Kenny Safford in Larry Bowers’ car, was unable to make the call after a clutch swap between rounds, and Garlits, perhaps loaded for bear to put an exclamation point on his win, smoked his way to a 7.03.

Garlits didn't have the only rear-engine car at the event. This is Chuck Tanko's super-long (254-inch wheelbase) car. Driver Ken Ellis didn't make the field.

By the way, Garlits didn’t have the only rear-engine car in Pomona; a couple of cars that I mentioned last week -- Chuck Tanko’s super-long RCS-built machine with driver Ken Ellis and Tom Kaiser in the former Widner & Dollins car – also tried but failed to make the field. Ellis only made one pass in Pomona before withdrawing for unknown reasons.

(Interesting side note: The 1971 season was the first in which the class was officially called Top Fuel after NHRA replaced its previously official designation of AA/FD, which certainly made it simpler and perhaps more attractive to the mainstream fans and media. Similarly, AA/GD became Top Gas.)

Just five weeks after winning the Winternationals, Garlits also won the fabled March Meet in Bakersfield. In a theme similar to his Pomona conquest, Garlits started slow – he qualified just No. 14 at 6.79; Larry Dixon Sr. was low at 6.64 – but came on strong in eliminations. He beat his January slingshot nemesis, Cochran, in Carl Casper’s Young American, with a 6.72 that was second only to Prudhomme’s 6.69, then improved to a 6.68 in round two and a 6.67 in the quarterfinals to edge Prudhomme, who reportedly had Garlits covered until he banged the blower at the first light and slowed to a 6.72. It’s interesting to note that Prudhomme was still running his Long-built front-engine Hot Wheels car (the so-called “slab-sided” car) but had removed almost all of the bodywork, perhaps in a weight-savings ploy.

After a semifinal 6.71 over Watus Simpson (driving Vance Hunt’s entry with an engine donated between rounds by Don Cook), Garlits squared off in the final with 1970 Supernationals champ Rick Ramsey and the front-engine California Charger of Keeling & Clayton. Ramsey outran Garlits by a ton – his 6.642 reset low e.t. of the meet – but “Big Daddy” got there first win a ginormous holeshot and became the first Top Fuel driver to win the fabled meet twice.

(Above) In this remarkable photo from the 1971 March Meet, Garlits can be seen at left flashing the "V for victory" sign in the lights after driving by Don Prudhomme in the quarterfinals; note that "the Snake's" blower is askew. (Below) Garlits sealed his second big NHRA win of the season by defeating 1970 Supernationals champ Rick Ramsey on a huge final-round holeshot.

If the Pomona win had not been enough to convince the masses that Garlits had it right, the Bakersfield win surely did.

Even before Bakersfield, National Dragster announced that John Buttera had begun work on a wild new rear-engine machine for Prudhomme that would become his short-lived Hot Wheels wedge, and rear-engine dragsters began to show up across the country, with even slingshot heroes like former world champ Bennie “the Wizard” Osborn and Jim Nicoll (with driver Billy Tidwell) – who survived his harrowing clutch explosion at the previous year’s Nationals -- making the move.

Garlits qualified low at his hometown Gatornationals with a 6.53 -- and from what I could tell by looking though photos and event coverage, he had the only rear-engine car on the grounds -- but shut down too soon against eventual runner-up Sarge Arciero in round two and lost. Arciero finished behind Jimmy King to temporarily put the slingshots back atop the pack.

(Above) Iowa farmer Earl Binns received one of Garlits' earliest rear-engine customer cars. (Below) Garlits added a wing to his own car in the spring and won with it on the car at the NHRA Springnationals in Dallas.

Garlits, meanwhile, had taken several orders for cars, first among them from his old buddies Chris Karamesines and Tom McEwen, but the first to make a splash was Iowa’s Earl “the Fuelin’ Farmer” Binns, who debuted his rear-engine Garlits car in early April at Continental Divide Raceway’s Colorado Fuel Open, where Kaiser also had his car in competition. They bowed out in rounds one and two, respectively.

Before long, many of the major chassis builders, including Gilmore, Long, Roy Fjastad, and Frank Huszar, were taking orders left and right.

Garlits won again at the NHRA Springnationals in Dallas, setting low e.t. and top speed and defeating John Wiebe’s slingshot in the final. By now, Garlits’ dragster was sporting a rear wing, which he had added after the Gatornationals.

“After Pomona, I flew home to Tampa [Fla.], sitting beside Jim Hall of Chaparral fame; we talked about the car moving around a little on slick tracks in the middle,” Garlits told me last week. “Jim suggested a small wing to give me a little downforce without sacrificing a lot of drag. We got on that immediately. The small wing gave us .25-second better e.t. and a full 10 mph!”

Garlits’ rear-engine car wasn’t the only one running well in Dallas. Former Funny Car driver Arnie Behling wheeled Bruce Dodd’s new Gilmore-built, John "Tarzan" Austin-wrenched Spirit – with a wing mounted just behind the engine -- to the No. 3 qualifying spot behind Garlits and Wiebe. Prudhomme also debuted his radical wedge rear-engine dragster at this event – and scored Best Engineered Car honors – and qualified No. 17 but bowed out of his much-anticipated scheduled first-round race with Garlits due to a reported parts shortage; he also was running his Funny Car and his old front-engine car (Mike Snively driving) at the event. No fewer than six rear-engine cars were at the event, including the trio mentioned above as well as Binns (who was tearing it up in Division 5), Osborn, and Gary Bailey.

At the 1971 Summernationals in Englishtown, Behling, Dodd, and Austin became the second rear-engine national event winners and almost won again at the next event, the inaugural Grandnational in Quebec, but the slingshots would not easily give up the ground they had long dominated. Pat Dakin (and a broken rear end) stopped Behling in the Canada final, and then Steve Carbone and his front-engine car famously upset Garlits in the burndown in Indy. Gerry Glenn and Bill Schultz, whose stretched front-engine car had run the quickest e.t. in history that summer with a 6.41 (Garlits later ran a stunning 6.21 in Indy), won the World Finals (and the championship with it) over Garlits, and Hank Johnson beat Wiebe in an all-slingshot climax to the Supernationals. By the end of 1972, however, only Art Marshall would win again in a front-engine car [read The Slingshot's Last Hurrah].

Chassis builders, of course, were always the first to see the trend, based on their order books. I developed a couple of case studies using interviews with Southern California masters Gilmore and Long as well as some of their earliest customers as source material.

WOODY GILMORE

(Above) Woody Gilmore's first rear-engine NHRA Top Fuel win came with Arnie Behling in Bruce Dodd's Spirit at the 1971 Summernationals. (Below) Jeb Allen was another racer who got one of Gilmore's earliest models.

Gilmore’s biggest early rear-engine success, as noted, was the Dodd/Behling machine, which scored a win and a runner-up in 1971, but he also found early customers in two drivers who would go on to greater success: Jeb Allen and Olson.

Gilmore was friends with the Allen family – having built their previous front-engine cars for Jr. Fuel and Top Fuel – and patriarch Guy worked alongside Gilmore in his Race Car Engineering shop, trading labor in part for the cost to build his son’s car, which Gilmore remembers was the “fourth or fifth” rear-engine car to come out of his shop that year.

“When Garlits came along, everyone jumped on the bandwagon,” Gilmore said. “After that, I only built a few more front-engined cars, plus I also started building more Funny Cars, too, as they became more popular.”

Allen, who had spent the previous summer wrenching on Carbone’s car, had wanted no part in following his brother, Leslie, into the seat of a slingshot Top Fuel car, but when he saw the rear-engine car, he was hooked. Although he did license in the family’s slingshot at age 17, he only drove it on about a dozen runs before his new car was ready in late spring. He debuted the car at one of Lions’ weekly shows but only ran the car once more that season, at the year-ending Supernationals, where he impressed with a semifinal finish, falling to Wiebe in the final four. Allen would go on to win the Summernationals the next year to become the youngest Top Fuel winner in history (18 years, 1 month), a mark that still stands.

Carl Olson loved being behind the engine early in his dragster career but came to peace quickly with the new design; a Winternationals win didn't hurt.
Gilmore fit Olson for his first rear-engine car; that's partner Mike Kuhl at right. "Woody did a great job of making the car as comfortable as possible for the driver, which I deeply appreciated," said Olson. (Steve Reyes photo)

Olson and Mike Kuhl had considerably more Top Fuel experience than Allen, and Olson wasted no time getting acclimated – and quick – with their new machine.

“Our car was finished in June of 1971. We first ran it at Lions the day it was finished and ran the quickest we ever had by a full tenth on the very first pass,” he recalled. “We ran it locally a couple times at Lions and OCIR, then we hauled it back to Indy for the Nationals, where we won the Best Appearing Car award and ran very well [No. 3 qualifier behind Garlits and Carbone and a semifinal finish].

“Naturally, I was a bit concerned about how the change from FED to RED would affect me. The FED was an absolutely awesome ride, especially at night. With the front wheels dangling in the air, the tires hazing white smoke, and the engine belching huge nitro flames high into the air (only to watch them bend backward as the car gained momentum), followed by the almost assured loss of vision near the finish line due to various liquids gathering on one's goggles, it made for an experience second to none. And oh, how great it felt when the chute blossomed and you could pull your goggles down and start looking for the turnout after another thrilling pass.

“To be perfectly honest, the RED wasn't nearly as thrilling as the FED, but the REDs were much more comfortable. Right at the top of the comfort list was the ability to actually see where you were going instead of looking directly at the back of a 6-71 supercharger and fuel injector and looking at the few degrees of peripheral vision between the blower/injector and the header flames. Also, no longer having your legs draped over the rear-end housing with the ring and pinion gears mere fractions of an inch from your private parts made things much more comfortable as well.

"Unlike some others, I considered the RED to be much safer due to the lack of oil, fuel, water, and fire in my face. I did have some concern about potentially running under a single Armco guardrail but fortunately never had that happen to me as a few others unfortunately did. Double Armco and concrete barriers (which I pushed very hard for) helped to lessen or eliminate that particularly disastrous potential tragedy in the making. I came to love the REDs and at least partially because they were easier to drive and were much more comfortable, but I still consider my days at the controls of an FED to be the most exciting driving experiences of my life. Yeah, those were the days.”

Unlike Garlits, Kuhl and Olson ran the entire season without a rear wing (basically because they couldn’t afford one), but after Olson opened the 1972 season with his first NHRA win at the Winternationals, they quickly added one.

“Everyone was running pretty good without one, so we didn’t think it was imperative,” he recalled of the decision to forgo a wing, “but once we had some cash jingling in our jeans, the first thing we did was have Woody build us a wing. It didn’t help so much performance-wise, but stability-wise, it was like night and day. The car was stuck to the ground and went where you pointed it; before that, it was a challenge to do that. We kicked ourselves for not doing it sooner. Once we figured out and made some changes to accommodate for the wing, we probably picked up a full tenth of a second just by being planted to the ground.”

DON LONG

It didn’t take very long for Long to get his first order for a rear-engine car; according to Long’s meticulous bookkeeping, Tommy Larkin placed his request Jan. 11, just three days after Garlits' runner-up at Lions. Larkin’s was car No. 66 to enter the jig at Long's hallowed shop, and the first rear-engine car, but it was not the first to hit the track. It would, in fact, be almost a full year before the first Long-built rear-engine car – ordered by Wes Cerny in late June -- actually hit the track and, between those two rear-engine cars, Long had built and delivered a conventional slingshot to Jackie Peebles, the last front-engine dragster he would build.

The challenge of switching from a front-engine to a rear-engine car is daunting from the team aspect, but from the builder standpoint, Long was unfazed.

“It was easy, no big deal,” he remembered. “Most all the tooling was usable when simply moved on the chassis jig. The only part of the first rear-engine chassis that I remember going through an improvement was the bay between the driver and engine. It took a few chassis to get the tubing arranged to a better design, and when it got there, the industry followed. The Top Fuel chassis are still built this way today.

“Additionally, I am sure there was a business and enthusiasm factor during the transition stages. The REDs were perceived as a new product with innovation potentials that would obsolete the somewhat uninteresting repetitious FEDs. Back then, we had two major drivers of chassis sales: obsolescence and destruction.”

Long is a truly fascinating man. He’s strongly opinionated and deeply invested in the science of going fast. I think that all chassis builders probably have a bit of mad scientist in them, eager to experiment and innovate, and Long is clearly not just a guy who bends tubes and welds them together. (See Hot Rod magazine’s Take Five with Don Long for more insight into the man.) I asked him when he remembered seeing his first rear-engine dragster and why he didn’t build one before 1971.

“The first RED that I remember seeing in person was one built by John Peters and Nye Frank around 1960,” he remembered. “It was a tube-frame, short, Olds-powered RED and driven once by a guy named Jack [Gordon]. Jack’s only run was very short. The dragster was upside-down by the time it reached the tower at Lions. It wasn’t a good 'first Impression' for anyone. I never knew the cause, only that Peters and Frank moved on to FEDs.

“As years passed, the RED’s record got questionable, sometimes positive as found in the Speed Sport Roadster and sometimes negative as found when some strip owners didn’t want them around. Being as how the RED record was questionable, what I knew about aft C/G stability, virtually all winners were FEDs. I was told VWs and Corvairs handled ‘differently,’ but Porsches handled great. I didn’t see them as unworkable or vice versa. I just had a wait-and-see attitude. I certainly could not afford -- both financially and by reputation -- to be a ‘scout’ for the chassis industry. I played it safe as I did with heavy streamliners and heavy ‘lost-motion’ suspensions. ‘Decrease d-mass D. Long’ is my creed, and it is fixed in the most important formula of all for acceleration: F=ma [force equals mass times acceleration].”

Don Long's first rear-engine car for Wes Cerny and Don Moody featured a T-tail rear stabilizer, a precursor to Garlits' more modern "monowing."

Cerny, who was already running a front-engine car with driver Don Moody, ordered his car June 29, 1971, and it was delivered Nov. 13, just days before the season-ending Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway.

The Cerny & Moody car was especially memorable for its T-tail rear stabilizer, a fin mounted vertically between the rear wheels with small canard wings near the top on each side. At this time, few of the new rear-engine dragsters had rear wings as we know them today, and one might easily conclude that Long’s wing was the predecessor for the “monowing” like the one Garlits would make famous with his later Swamp Rats.

“The idea was rooted in the poor overall record of REDs at the time, and a nature law of stability -- separation between the center of gravity and the center of pressure (like an arrow and parachute),” said Long. “In layman’s terms, for horizontal stability, one wants the weight in front and the drag in back, and the tail (or rudder) is somewhat of a ‘stability on demand’ answer. It was an idea ahead of its time.

“To this day, I do not FULLY buy into the Garlits story about slowing down the steering as the one thing that he did for acceptable handling unless the steering was too fast to begin with. My REDs never had this problem, and their steering ratio was pretty much the same as my previous FEDs. I believe the biggest thing that helped REDs' handling was the rear wing, which simply moved the center of pressure rearward."

Don Moody has gone from four wheels to two but is still rolling.
We see what you mean, Moody. What could compare to this?

I exchanged emails with Cerny and Moody, who remain close friends some 45 years later despite their geographical distances. Cerny recently traveled to Thailand, where Moody lives, to ride bicycles; Moody is a fanatic about bike riding, usually putting in 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) a day.

Cerny remembered that they still had time for test runs with the new rear-engine car at Lions before heading to the Supernationals, where fuel-system problems kept them from qualifying. They ran the 1972 Winternationals, and the new tires they had loaded their old iron 392 so heavy that it split the block, sending the crankshaft out the bottom.

Moody remembered this being a tough time for the team, especially the driver.

“That was an indecisive time for us, due to a couple of factors,” he said. “We had ordered up the new rear chassis in hopes it would be quicker and more consistent, but at the same time, our front-engine car was working very well. We had just changed to Goodyear tires, which were good for a tenth consistently and easier to drive. We won seven of our last nine races with this combination along with new track e.t. records, but we were between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. On the first run with the new rear-engine car, I realized that we made a ‘mistake’; it ran no better than the front-engine car. Maybe more consistent but no quicker. Both cars ran a 6:37 as best.

“As far as driving goes, the rear-engine cars were not as exciting and nowhere near as much fun … for me anyway! Sitting out in front was like being perched on a fence -- no more wheelstands and driving with the seat of your pants trying to keep the car in your lane. Should the rear-engine car get out of shape, you had to lift because you were always behind on reactions with the engine and pivot point behind. In the early days, several drivers tried to drive the car crossed up; this normally ended in disaster. I do remember the rear-engine car was more sensitive to steering inputs. With a front-engine car, you more or less guided it down the track; with the rear-engine, you steered down the track. As a rule, the new rear-engine car would go straight as an arrow; it was quite boring, but, saying that, my firesuit stayed much cleaner with no clutch dust mixed with the traction compound in the burnout box. I guess that part was a plus? <grin>

“As far as getting comfortable with the rear-engine car, I’m not sure ‘comfortable’ is the term. I was ready to race it as soon as we took it out of the trailer, and I used the same starting-line measures that we had used with the front-engine car. It was all quite successful, but sitting in front vs. behind was similar to a black and white movie to Technicolor. I felt I had a front-row seat, out in front of everyone (all I needed was a program); this probably added to the boredom. Don't get me wrong here. I've never been lackadaisical about driving or riding anything; I was always aware and had great respect for these things. But front- or rear-engine? Rear-engine was a consistent winner but nothing as exciting as pulling to the starting line at night trying to see the Tree between the blower and the fire from the headers (with leaky port nozzles, I might add, since it gets real hot), the light flickers, and hit the loud pedal! The front-engine fuel car was an E-ticket ride.”

The Walton-Cerny-Moody car, their second rear-engine car from Long, set the world on its ear with a win and stunning 5.91 at the 1972 Supernationals.

Cerny sold the car to Lyle Dill in the spring of 1971 and, with partner and longtime friend Doug Walton, had Long build the Walton, Cerny & Moody car – car No. 77 for Long -- which also incorporated a new 426 powerplant and, much to Moody’s delight, the change from direct drive to a Lenco two-speed transmission (“Something for the driver to do!” he exulted).

“We knew that we needed more power, so we tried to decide on a Donovan 417 block or a 426 engine,” recalled Moody. “It was Wes’ decision (and I agreed) that we go with a new car (again) and a Keith Black 480-inch ‘late model.’ My feeling was the late model had a better RPM range, giving it longer legs, and since we were going to use a Lenco two-speed, it would still run better than everyone else out there. (Ha ha, I was never the smartest guy around, but I was good friends with those who were pretty clever.) Anyway, to make a long story short, the new Don Long with a Keith Black 480 engine cleaned up the bog, so to speak, and this combination was very successful.”

That’s a bit of an understatement. In addition to winning the huge-for-then $35,000 purse at the PRA National Challenge in Tulsa, Okla., they won the 1972 Supernationals with a staggering 5.91-second elapsed time and finished the year by being the last track record holder at Lions with a 6.01 at The Last Drag Race.

“Looking back at it all, we consistently ran four-tenths of a second quicker by going to the rear-engine car in less than a year’s time,” reflected Moody. “So there it is: the rear-engine car was by far the best deal for us and drag racing.

“But that didn't make it any less boring,” he added wryly.

Boring or not, as Moody noted, the design forever changed the sport, and certainly for the better. The rapid drop in elapsed time -- from Prudhomme’s 6.43 at the end of 1970 to Garlits’ 6.21 by the end of 1971 to Moody’s 5.91 by the end of 1972 was stunning, and the best speed went from 235 to 243 mph – notwithstanding, the safety factor and peace of mind that it gave drivers, owners, crew chiefs, and even fans was easily worth any low e.t.

Sure, anyone who ever saw front-engine cars run misses them, but 40 years and many design changes later, Top Fuelers are still the greatest and most awesome racing machines on the planet and one of the many reasons we all love this sport.

Next week: Some early trailblazing rear-engined dragsters from the 1950s and '60s