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Teen Terrors of the '70s: 'Fearless Fred' Mooneyham

06 Nov 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Teenage Fred Mooneyham with his father, Gene, and crewmember Larry Faust.
(Above) Mooneyham cut his teeth in a front-engine Top Fueler in Louisiana. (Below) Mooneyham and brother Gene Jr. later added a wing above the cockpit.
(Above) The California Cajun Top Fueler was a consistent runner when the family returned to California. (Below) In the 1972 OCIR winner's circle, from left, are Gene Jr., Dorothy, and Fred Mooneyham, race queen Candi Herfurth, Gene Mooneyham Sr., Larry Faust, and Stan Shiroma.
A dejected Mooneyham pushes back the California Cajun after it banged the blower in qualifying at the 1972 Supernationals.
Mooneyham, far lane, upset heavily favored James Warren in the semifinals of the California Pro Circuit event in Bakersfield in November 1972 and ran 237 mph, giving him the claim as world's fastest teenager.

Descending from quarter-mile royalty, Fred Mooneyham had drag racing in his DNA, so it’s probably no surprise that he followed his famous father, Gene, onto the dragstrip; it's maybe just surprising that he did it at such a young age.

The early part of Mooneyham’s career was more off the radar than that of his California peers, but he believes that he may have licensed ahead of Randy Allison, Jeb Allen, and John Stewart. He was just 16 years old and in high school when he licensed in the family’s front-engine Mooneyham & Sons Top Fueler at LaPlace Dragway in Louisiana, where the family had moved when the patriarch, then employed by Keith Black, took a job there. After years in California, they packed up and headed east, where young Mooneyham completed high school and got in his first runs at the dragstrip.

The senior Mooneyham, who came into prominence with the famed Mooneyham & Sharp 554 coupe, had progressed to Top Fuel in the 1960s as part of the Jungle Four/Mooneyham-Jackson-Ferguson-Faust team, and it was actually the Mooneyhams' car -- with Robert Anderson’s name on the side -- that Dave Chenevert drove to victory at the inaugural Gatornationals in 1970, with the young Mooneyham as part of the crew.

“I was surrounded by Top Fuelers growing up, so I guess it’s not surprising that I wanted to drive one,” he said. “Growing up, I was just passionate about being out there in the garage with the car until my mom finally would make me come in and go to bed.”

A self-admitted troublemaker as a teen (“I was a straight-D student and just as likely to get into a fight after school than anything else”), Mooneyham channeled that energy into his racing efforts, and his parents were more than happy to give him an outlet – briefly in drag boats, then in motocross before he settled on Top Fuel – to calm his restless nature. And when the family’s latest Top Fuel driver was dismissed for poor performance, young Mooneyham finally got his chance and didn’t waste it.

“I borrowed a firesuit and got my license pretty quickly, in just a couple of weekends,” he remembers. “We raced all over the place: Florida, Bristol, Dallas, Oklahoma City, and all over Division 4 for a couple of years before we went back to California.”

Mooneyham’s brother, Gene Jr., a year his senior and also mechanically gifted, spent time working with a number of nitro teams and was on the crew with Steve Carbone when he upset Don Garlits in the great final-round burndown at the 1971 U.S. Nationals. Both brothers were so mechanically sharp from a young age that they once challenged their high-school small-engines-class teacher’s technical explanation of how a carburetor venturi works. The teacher and administration were so impressed that they got the brothers enrolled for advanced mechanical classes at Delgado Trade School. Between racing and the trade-school classes, Mooneyham wasn’t in high school much, which was just fine with him, and he squeaked through to graduate.

When the family returned to California, Mooneyham came up with the catchy California Cajun name for its now rear-engine dragster and ran regularly throughout the region. One of the family's biggest victories came at Orange County Int’l Raceway’s anniversary Race of Winners in 1972. Former Jungle Four team member and driver Larry Faust was part of the team, as was family friend and future national event Top Fuel winner Stan Shiroma, who handled clutch duties.

“Funny story from those times,” Mooneyham mused. “It was at the March Meet in 1973. Don Garlits had just won the Winternationals, beating Dennis Baca in the final, and stayed out in California for the March Meet. We qualified fairly well but drew Dennis Baca in the first round, and we beat him, which was a surprise to all of us, then we drew Garlits in the second round. What are the odds of that? Now remember, [teenage] John Stewart had just beaten Garlits at Irwindale earlier that year [at the Grand Premiere], and I was there and saw that Garlits was just beyond pissed for getting beaten, and I remember the announcer saying there was no way Don was going to let another teenager beat him. He had lane choice, and we smoked the tires in the bad lane.”

(Mooneyham was good friends with teen peers Allen and Allison and recalls that Allen at one time hatched an idea for the three of them to form a loose alliance with “California Wiz Kids” painted on their cars, though it never came to fruition.)

Mooneyham was also the proud winner of a special, post-season race staged by Steve Evans on Irwindale’s motocross track in November 1973. Dirt-bike riding was a popular pastime for Southern California nitro racers, with guys like Don Moody, Don Prudhomme, Sush Matsubara, and Shiroma making excursions to the desert for a little two-wheel fun. Mooneyham and Moody dueled throughout, with Moody faster on the straights and Mooneyham’s Husqvarna better in the turns and whoop-de-dos, and the youngster outlasted the veteran and, in fact, won all three heats.

In 1974, Gene Mooneyham started the supercharger business that bore his name – and still does today, more than a decade after he sold it – and eventually, the needs of running the business overcame the needs of running a race car, and the dragster was parked.

“We just didn’t have the time to dedicate to the race car, and I was working at the business building blowers with my dad,” he said. “Then I met a girl – to whom I’m still married – and decided to try to move on with my life and become successful in something else.”

The Mooneyhams were neighbors in Downey, Calif., with the Beaver brothers, Richard and Gene, and John Force and the Condit brothers lived close by, so it’s no surprise that young Mooneyham fell into league with them, which led to an offer to drive the L.A. Hooker Vega on a months-long tour of Australia in 1975 when Dave Condit was unable to get time off of work.

Although he had never driven a Funny Car, “Fearless Fred” -- as he had been named by Faust not just for racing, but also for his wild, bar-fighter mentality – agreed to do it. Shakedown runs were scheduled for Irwindale Raceway; the only problem was that no emergency crew or ambulance was available.

Mooneyham, right, with wife Jane and John Force at Flow International HQ.

“My dad begged me not to do it, but I was fearless and said, ‘Let’s go.’ Sure enough, on the first run, it caught fire. I discharged the fire extinguishers – which really pissed off Gene, because they were expensive to refill – and I got out OK, but we couldn’t run again, so that was my training – three-quarters of a run – and off we went to Australia, but we ended up winning the series and setting track records.”

When they returned Stateside, Mooneyham began to frequent Steve Plueger’s S&R Race Cars shop, which led to an invitation to drive the Plueger & Gyger Mustang (previously driven by Condit).

Mooneyham went back to school at nights and earned a business degree (“Even though it took me 14 years,” he chuckles) and went on to help found the world’s largest waterjet cutting systems business, Flow International Corp., which for years was a sponsor of former neighbor Force’s Funny Car team.

Gene Mooneyham died of pneumonia Jan. 17, 2006, at age 75, and left behind a living legacy with his kids. Mooneyham credits the strong work ethic and morals inspired by his father, a former Oklahoma farmer, for their success in life.

“I was very blessed to be raised by Gene Mooneyham,” he said. “He was the finest man that I have ever met, and I was blessed to be in his company and learn the lessons of life from such a great man.”