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Funny Cars: Who's on first? I dunno ...

29 Jan 2016
Phil Burgess, National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

Jim Johnson and Jimmy Nix suited up; the firesuits were mostly for show.

Jack Chrisman's Comet was a race car, shown here running in B/FD in Pomona.

Well, it appears that there’s nothing like an article about something or someone being the first to get everyone all worked up about whether or not it actually was. I’m quickly finding that tracing the roots to the “first Funny Car” might be like science’s long-running effort to pinpoint the first “man” based on physical characteristics and abilities alone. I love it when a plan comes together.

So allow me to throw a little more gasoline on the fire.

Did the Jimmy Nix- and Jim Johnson-driven Dodge Chargers I wrote about last week precede Jack Chrisman’s Comet? Absolutely. A lot of sources state that Ford’s Fran Hernandez had Chrisman build the Comet specifically to beat the Dodges and to shadow them as they went around the country and try to goad them into running head to head.

But was Chrisman’s car more like what we know today as a Funny Car because it ran on nitromethane and had direct drive, whereas the Chargers ran on gas with automatic transmissions? No doubt.

Did either look like or were they built like what we know today as a Funny Car? No. The tube-frame, flip-top look did not come into vogue until 1966 with the Comets of Chrisman, Don Nicholson, Eddie Schartman, and Kenz & Leslie.

Was anyone calling them “funny cars” at the time? There’s anecdotal information about Hernandez telling Chrisman to go out and beat those “funny” Dodges at their own game, but, realistically, those Chargers were not all that funny looking. In fact, other than the injector scoop protruding only slightly above the hood line and the mostly-for-show parachutes that blossomed at the end of each run (mandatory, according to Johnson), the Chargers were pretty stock-appearing. They did not have altered wheelbases that created a “funny” appearance, nor did Chrisman’s Comet. In fact, in a Hot Rod magazine article about the Sachs & Sons Comet, Chrisman specifically noted that he tried to retain as many stock pieces as possible.

The seven Chryslers that showed up at AHRA’s 1965 Winternationals did have altered wheelbases – the rear axle moved forward by more than a foot and the front wheels pushed forward by 10 inches – and certainly looked more “funny” than the Chargers or Chrisman’s Comet, but the class certainly did not exist by name. According to one account I found online, their bodies were acid-dipped, the front fenders, doors, dash, hood, and deck lid were fiberglass, and the glass windows had been replaced by lightweight plastic. Yet they did not compete in a class called Funny Car but more likely as Super Stockers or some sort of special “factory showdown” type of race.

Fortunately, there is a small community of drag racing history experts in my circle of pals, so I called on a couple of them to weigh in. Dave Wallace, in my opinion one of the true deans of drag racing history, has authored articles on the subject – including a really nice one about the Dodge Chargers, which originally appeared in Hot Rod magazine in 2005 but is reprinted in the current (and, sadly, last) issue of Elapsed Times on newsstands now – and has firsthand knowledge of the era.

“Having not only lived through the stock-to-Funny Car evolution but working at tracks (since 1961) and starting to write about these things (since 1964), I was lucky to closely observe that entire process,” he wrote. “It's always perplexed me how even many people who consider Chrisman's Comet to be the first blown-fuel funny car (lowercase) refuse to recognize the three Dodges that preceded and, in fact, directly inspired FoMoCo to back Chrisman (to break the 150-mph barrier before one of the 141-mph Chargers got there first). Since Chrisman's Comet was built specifically to compete with the Dodge Chargers, surely the minor differences – e.g., fuel type and transmission – don't disqualify the cars that started the whole trend by touring widely and demonstrating to local stocker hitters everywhere that bolting on a blower made it possible to race for money and fame instead of cheap trophies and record certificates.”

“Flyin’ Phil” Elliott, another well-respected guy with an encyclopedic knowledge who has covered the sport for decades, also chimed in. “The Dodge Chargers were not AWB [altered wheelbase]. Chrisman's Comet was also not AWB, and although these are all part of the history of the movement, were not ‘funny cars’ per se. It has been an arguable, semantic point BUT quite important nonetheless. The actual name possibly/probably could have been something coined by a hyped-up announcer with a phrase such as, ‘Those new Dodges/Plymouths sure look funny.’ There are also the two theories that the term was very derogatory: one coming from the hot/wire-wheel racers who failed to see much humor in the ever-more popular stockers, and the other from an edict laid down by Hernandez, who stated emphatically that his factory teams were not to match race ‘those funny cars.’

Dick Landy's injected FXer looked more "funny" than the Chargers or Comet.

“That said, I suggest that the term ‘funny car’ describes what has become a nearly mystical ideology, one that has evolved far beyond the original intent. The ‘movement’ came during a third stage of drag race evolvement, one that rapidly snowballed out of Detroit’s horsepower race. And, having lived and experienced it, approximately five years after I viewed my first drag race, I can tell you that seeing the touring AWB/AFX group (Sox & Martin, Landy, [Cecil] Yother, [Hayden] Proffitt, [Malcolm] Durham, and about 20 more, etc.) in August of 1965 changed my life.”

Wallace also pointed out that no existing class in drag racing retains its original name; e.g., gassers were “hot stockers”; dragsters were called "rails" and even "lakesters"; altereds were "hot roadsters" and "hot coupes/sedans." Keeping that in mind, Wallace supposes that it might not have been until Dick Landy unveiled his wild, altered-wheelbase '64 Dodge Super Stocker late in 1964 (after Chrisman had run in Indy) that the cars began to gain the nickname and, obviously, even longer before the sanctioning bodies sanctioned a category with the name in uppercase letters (in NHRA’s case, late 1966).

(Yet I heard from Jack “JA Approved” Redd, a longtime East Coast reporter/photographer/bon vivant, who claims that the term was loosely coined in 1964 at Maryland’s Aquasco Speedway when track employee Alvin Johnson first saw Chrisman’s car and was said to proclaim, ‘Man, that a funny-looking car!’ and that the first race ever advertised as a “Funny Car” meet was staged at Aquasco by promoter Julio Marra in 1965. I cannot confirm or disprove any of this.)

Ron Pellegrini's Super Mustang was an all-fiberglass nitroburner.

Into the fray comes my old buddy Ron Pellegrini -- who has raced everything from gas dragsters to A/FXers to Funny Cars and even Tommy Ivo’s four-engine Showboat -- who put some skin into the game by suggesting that it was in fact his Super Mustang that has a claim to being the first Funny Car inasmuch as it had an all-fiberglass body (albeit two pieces), a tube chassis, and a setback supercharged engine burning nitro in 1965, a year before the flip-top Comets.

After watching what was beginning to happen all around them, Pellegrini proposed to Ford Racing chief Jacque Passino in late 1964 that he take what the Dodges were doing to the next step by adding a tube-frame chassis and putting Ford’s hot new Mustang body atop it. Ford decided to pass – thinking the car would be too light and dangerous – but Pellegrini had already set the wheels in motion, taking an off-the-lot Mustang to a friend’s fiberglass shop (which later led directly to Pellegrini founding Fiberglass Ltd., the premier builder of Funny Car bodies) to build a mold, then mounting the body to the Dennison, Arlasky, and Knox fuel roadster chassis he had purchased. Voila! It’s a Funny Car, right?

So the debate rages on, but it’s not likely to end with a solid conclusion.

Jack Chrisman is no longer around to debate the point, though several of his longtime friends and associates, including Insider readers Mike Kopmanis and Kim Welch, firmly believe that Chrisman’s Comet rightly should wear the crown.

Fortunately for me, Jim Johnson is still around – alive and kicking and still driving for a living, as an escort driver for oversize loads. His daughter, Dori Lewis, passed along his phone number, and I was surely eager to get his take on the discussion.

Jim Johnson (photo courtesy of Hot Rod)

He prefaced our conversation – admirably conducted while he was doing escort duty, our conversation interrupted a few times by incoming and outgoing radio calls -- by noting that he was wearing a T-shirt picturing the car and emblazoned with the words “The Beginning” and went on to offer a fair and interesting assessment of Funny Car lineage.

Johnson doesn’t recall the first time he heard the phrase “funny car” used in conjunction with either his Charger or Chrisman’s Comet and noted that even before them, some of the Factory Experimental guys were toying with altered-wheelbase cars that certainly looked “funny.” In Johnson’s view, the difference between a funny-looking car and anything that might be considered a “funny car” was the supercharger.

“The fuel-racing dragster guys all want to say it was Jack’s car because he ran fuel and high-gear-only like them, and, to be fair, I loved Jack and thought his car was amazing, but it probably never would have been built if it wasn’t for our cars.

“Our cars were never really designed to be race cars; they were a promotion by Dodge to get people to buy more Dodge cars, which is one reason we were not allowed to race anyone but one another. There also was a safety concern from the people at Dodge for what any car that was racing us might do as far as control went. We also weren’t allowed to do things to the cars to make them faster – like moving the engine farther back – because Dodge wanted to maintain a look as close to stock as we could.

“A lot of people want to say we weren’t allowed to run against Jack because Dodge was afraid we’d lose, but I would have loved to. In the early part of that year, before Jack really got the car figured out, it was more tire smoke and noise than performance, and I honestly think we could have beaten him. He might have out-mile-per-houred us, but I don’t think he would have beaten us to the finish line.

“But to answer your original question, I think that anyone who was in any kind of program that progressed the class was part of it, and Jack certainly took what we were doing one step further. I’m not going to say we were the first funny cars because that might have come from those altered-wheelbased cars that came before us, but I’m sticking with the fact that ours were the first factory-sponsored, supercharged race cars that led to the class we know today as Funny Car.”

 

 

 

I received the photos at right of the Nix/Johnson Dodge Chargers running at San Diego Raceway in 1964 from reader Rich Fritz, and they are the first color action photos I have ever seen of the cars and downright cool. I asked Rich to share his story.

“It was in March 1964, and I was 20 years young and excited to see what these new mystery Mopar Chargers were all about. It was a beautiful, nice, sunny, warm spring Ramona day. The raceway actually ran parallel to the Ramona Airport in those days.

"The anticipation was pretty intense as we were wondering how quick these S/FX factory cars were. It did not take long to find out! When they rolled these beauties off the trailers and started setting them up to run, we all wanted to see as much as we could, but for somewhat obvious reasons, they kept everybody back from eyeballing too much.

“Then they finally got into position on the line, and the Chrondek timing Tree started counting down to the green light, and the thundering Mopars were revving up for quick exit from the box. Then, off they went, just as straight and controlled as any Mopar of that class and size we had ever seen. I didn’t remember the exact e.t. and speed – somewhere in the 11-second range, and the speed was somewhere in the 130-mph stratosphere – but it was the fastest, full-bodied-car drag race I was ever to witness in those early days of drag racing.

“It was the best drag race I had ever witnessed with my 20-year-old eyes, and everyone was showing quite a range of emotion, from disbelief to big, wide grins and cheers. I was glad they made two more runs, but I was in some degree of shock all day.”

It was at San Diego Raceway – and I’m not certain it was the day of Fritz’s photos – that Nix crashed his Charger. As noted, the cars ran Torqueflite transmissions, shifted by the infamous dashboard push buttons, but Nix was either unaware or forgot that in the process of making them race-ready, the buttons were reassigned so that “Drive” was actually 1st gear and “First” was actually high gear (“Second” was still 2nd). He launched in what was high, and the car bogged; he carried on with the run, but, of course, when he went for high gear, he got 1st instead. The tires locked up, and he crashed. That car was repaired and carried on. Later that year, another Charger was destroyed while riding atop a car carrier when the truck driver tried to pass beneath a low bridge.

Johnson thinks it was his car that was destroyed, but Wallace’s article opines it was the team’s third car – known as “the bumper car” because it still carried the stock 330 bumpers whose original purpose was as a display car for dealerships – that was wrecked. Nix’s car – easily identifiable because of firewall modifications that Nix had made in hopes of being allowed to move the engine rearward (he was forbidden) – was discovered as a “barn find” in Wisconsin in 1980 and restored and passed through several hands. Johnson believes that the third car – be it his car or the “bumper car” – is still out there somewhere.
 

Jody Austin chimed in to the “first Funny Car” discussion – somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I’m assuming – that his dad, Raymond, had what he calls “the Original Flopper” in the late 1950s: A homebuilt, tube “pipe” chassis with a flip-top Fiat body and a supercharged engine. The car was towed from Texas to the 1960 Smokers Meet in Bakersfield, where it won its class over the likes of Ratican, Jackson & Stearns and a slew of other cars.

“This flopper, originally built in 1957, was raced in 1958, then rebuilt with a lighter frame and raced in ‘59 and set the national record several times,” he wrote. “As the story goes, after setting the A/Fuel Coupe national record, Dad was presented with an offer to have his way paid to go to Bakersfield if he could match those record times again. The car was taken back to the track, and once again, he equaled the record. The offer was made good, and off he went, then winning the class there.”

Newer fans may remember the Austin name as car owner of the Top Fueler driven by Marshall Love that lost in the third round in Indy in 1970, falling to Jim Nicoll, who two rounds later lost that unforgettable final round to Don Prudhomme. The senior Austin had a rear-engine race car as early as 1954 and went on to drive for Vance Hunt before building his own Top Fuel car in 1962 with driver Bob Lace, who was killed in the car in a crash at Louisiana’s LaPlace Dragway in September 1963. Other cars and drivers followed, including what is purported to be Richard Tharp’s first ride before partnering with Love.

OK, Funny Car fans, that’s where I leave you. So whether you’re in the Johnson/Nix camp, the Chrisman camp, the Pellegrini camp, or any other camp, or whether you believe that sahelanthropus tchadensis was the first “man” or that it was homo habilis, I don’t have the answer. That both frustrates and amuses me.

Maybe next we could talk about the origins of the term “drag race.” Or not.

Thanks for reading and chiming in.