NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Top Fuelers and Funny Cars of the 1960s

Drag racing photographer Ron Lewis, who’s been shooting at the drags since he was a teenager in the mid-1960s and continues to be a regular presence at Mello Yello Series events, is sharing with us some of the thousands of his vintage drag racing pics. This week: the 1960s.
19 Oct 2018
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

lewis1.jpgWhat do you give the drag racing fan/historian/journalist who already has access to tens of thousands of historic drag racing photos? Thousands of more photos, many of them not seen in decades if ever at all!

Drag racing photographer Ron Lewis, who’s been shooting at the drags since he was a teenager in the mid-1960s and continues to be a regular presence at Mello Yello Series events, handed me a memory stick a few weeks ago at Texas Motorplex with more than 10 gigabytes of photos, a treasure trove spanning his career at guardrails across the country over six decades.

Neatly organized by decade and class, with a hefty ‘60s and ‘70s mother lode from legendary Southern California tracks like Lions Dragstrip, Orange County Int’l Raceway, Riverside Raceway, Irwindale Raceway, Pomona Raceway, Carlsbad Raceway, and more, it was literal feast for my nostalgia-tuned eyes and I knew immediately that I wanted to share them here.

Lewis, a native of San Diego, got his first taste of the drags at nearby Carlsbad Raceway in late 1965, when he was 11 with some car-loving neighbors. A few months later, he made the trip to Pomona for the ‘66 Winternationals and hasn’t missed one since.

lewis2.jpgBefore long he was toting a Brownie camera with him to capture the magic unfolding before him and quickly graduated to a Honeywell Pentax SLR and on it went. Photography went from a hobby to a profession in the mid-1980s when he did a lot of work for Dave Wallace Jr and the fledgling Drag Racing magazine, which earned him his first cover shot or what would end up to me more than 100 covers on various magazines. His work as a pro photographer existed along his 9-to-5 job in defense electronics and marketing and sales until his recent retirement. His marketing background and photo skills allowed him to create an A list of clients including Miller Beer, Winston/RJ Reynolds, Quaker State, Auto Club, AC Delco, SnapOn Tools, U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, and four major automobile manufacturers. His work continues today with Auto Club, Ford-Motorcraft, Mahle-Clevite, and StrutMasters while contributing to a number of print and online publications.

His catalog is vast and what he shared with me only a small percentage of hand-picked images, from which I chose some of my favorites, based on nothing more than the appeal they presented to my love of the sport. These are all from the ‘60s and I’ll work through his ‘70s and ‘80s catalogs in future columns. Enjoy, and thanks again, Ron!

This one jumped right off my screen at me. It’s Pete Robinson unloading his Tinker Toy Top Fueler at the 1969 Winternationals. I believe that’s actually “Sneaky Pete” doing the honors. While the car itself is spectacular to see -– and knowing that Robinson would lose his life at this same racetrack just two years later –- what really caught my eye was how small his trailer was, or even that of Connie Kalitta in the background. And is that a clutch floater laying on the Pomona pavement?

Fans are more used to seeing them race one another in Funny Cars, but here’s Don Prudhomme and doing battle at Carlsbad during the 1968 PDA event, with “the Snake” in his and Carroll Shelby’s Super Snake and “the Mongoose” in his Wynn’s Duster. The Carlsbad event was the second of three that year in the PDA series, with the first taking place the day before at Lions and the final one the next weekend in Sacramento.

I never got the chance to go to Lions Dragstrip, but you hear it all the time from those who did about just how close the fans were to the left-lane action. This great photo pretty much captures that fact. “My dad took me and sat with me all day long in the grandstand, and the cars were really close,” said Lewis. “I was still learning how to take photos back then. I didn’t know you had to pan with the car.”

Speaking on Lions, here’s a view of the facility that I’d never seen before. It’s taken from the famed crossover bridge, looking back at the pits during the 1967 East vs. West Funny Car race. You can see the Limefire Barracuda, once billed as the "World’s Most Beautiful Funny Car."

And here’s another seldom-seen angle of Lions, showing the size of the right-lane grandstands. Lewis says this is from July 1967 and that’s “the Snake’s dragster after getting new (and still unpainted) body panels and that that Prudhomme went on to win the event.

Maybe the first of Lewis’ many crash and burn-type photos (“I got a lot because I always hung out at the top end with Steve Reyes”) is this late ‘60s/early ‘70s photo of the Ground Shaker Top Fueler at Pomona that showed how fire was the scourge of front-engined dragster drivers. You can see the driver (Bob Hightower?) ducking to avoid the shrapnel and fire. (Plus how cool is that even Top Fuelers had nicknames back then?)

Speaking of crash and burn, here’s Larry Reyes in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian at the 1969 Winternationals and milliseconds after Lewis took this photo, the car took flight and crashed heavily. You can see the huge and anti-efficient front spoiler that led to the calamity. I did a few interviews with Reyes and Leong [here and here] on the subject. Reyes knew the Charger's aerodynamics, built by actual engineers, were dodgy (pun intended) at best, and told me, “I remember sitting on the starting line, ready to stage, with the car idling, yanking the belts tight, and saying, 'Lord, please don’t let me hurt anyone.' "

Still at Pomona but with a very different kind of car, the amazing-looking Smirnoff Top Fueler of Daryl Greenamyer. The sponsorship with the vodka company was real and grew from the company’s sponsorship of Greenamyer’s highly-modified Grumman Bearcat racing airplane. Built by Roy Fijasted team at Speed Products Engineering with a swoopy body designed by Steev Swaja and executed in tin by Bob Sorrell, the car was a real looker, and with legendary Dave Zeuschel building and tuning the engine, it ran well, too. Joe Passalaqa, who owns the car now, wrote to let me know that Greenamyer passed away recently and unexpectedly on Oct. 1.

Here's the Hippo & Poindexter car, which sounds like something that should have been a Sunday morning cartoon, but was in fact a very good-running Top Fueler owned by Everett “Hippo" Brammer and Tom Poindexter and driven here at OCIR by (I’m assuming) John Mitchell, whom contemporary fans might remember as the owner of the Montana Express Top Fuel and alcohol dragsters driven by the likes of David Grubnic, Ron Capps, Larry Dixon, Tony Pedregon, Rod Fuller, and many others. Hippo was one of those guys about which no one ever had a bad word throughout his career, which early on was tied to Jim Brissette and “Wild Bill” Alexander in the early 1960s. The car, another built by Fjastad at SPE, is currently being restored by Eddie Buck; check out the Facebook page here.

“The first time I ever got decent photo access and didn’t have to shoot from the grandstands was at Carlsbad in 1968,” recalls Lewis. “I didn’t have a photo pass but security was not real tight and I just walked down the to the guardrail and no one said a word. I got some pretty decent stuff like this one of the Chi-Town Hustler. I actually got down on my stomach and shot under the guardrail.”

More from that ’68 Carlsbad race. I love this shot of Gene Snow’s Rambunctious Charger. I’ve seen it in black and white photos plenty of times but not in color.

Another sweet color shot from Carlsbad showing Top Fuel legend Chris Karamesines’ Charger Funny Car. Like a number of Top Fuel stalwarts, “The Greek” had to jump on the Funny Car bandwagon as the class’ popularity grew, but only ran floppers for a couple of years (1969-71).

This must be at least 1969, with Reyes at the butterfly of the Hawaiian at Carlsbad with the front wheels crossed up on a hard launch. Funny Cars were so wild and awesome back then. Sweet photo.

This is just the second photo I’ve seen of this “race” where the Top Fuel mounts of Walt Stevens, near lane, and Bill Dunlap both broke just off the starting line in the first round at Riverside Raceway in the late 1960s. At some tracks in those days, the drivers were required to get their cars across the finish line no matter what, which in this case meant pushing. Here’s Stevens account: "Bill blew the bottom of his manifold out, and we blew the rear end. That started the big push. It was 112 degrees that day. I jumped out and started pushing the car; and still was ahead of Bill, but with the rear end being broke, it would hang up on something and come to a stop. I would have to pull it back a little and then start all over again. I did this about four times and was ahead of Bill to about half-track. Dick Linens owned the car and was running alongside telling me, 'If you win, you can have all that round money,' so I pushed harder.”

stevens.jpgStevens actually passed out further down the track, as you can see in the photo at right (not Lewis’).

“At about 1,000 feet, the lights went out,” Stevens continued. “I fell to the back of the car, and when I fell, I pulled the chute handle, and the chute came out on top of me. Bill won the race, and we both ended up in the hospital with a temp of 107 degrees. They made us take off all of our clothes and go in to a very cold shower. My head felt like it was six feet in diameter. I had a headache for about a week after that deal."

Here’s a car that put the “funny” in Funny Car back in those early days, the Genuine Suspension AMX-1 Javelin from 1969. As Funny Cars began to gain popularity the team simply took its Super Rat Fiat Topolino Fuel Altered chassis and plopped a shortened AMX body on it. Experienced Fuel Altered handler Tom Ferraro drove the wild machine to 7.30s at more than 190 mph and was behind the wheel when the car burned to the ground; he suffered some serious burns that kept him in the sidelines for a few years.

Another look at a typical late-1960s Funny Car, the pre-“Flash Gordon” Superbird Firebird of the late Gordon Mineo (I believe that’s him framed in the side window). Other than the boxy chassis, check out those weedburner headers. Top Fuelers were already running zoomie headers (Don Garlits had them on Swamp Rat 6B when it ran 200 mph in 1964), but a large percentage of floppers stuck with weedburners until the early 1970s.

Don Schumacher digging out of the hole with the Stardust Barracuda at Carlsbad. Note that Schumacher was an early adopter of the zoomie header configuration.

Another shot from the 1969 Winternationals showing Rich Siroonian dropping the laundry in his uncle “Big John” Mazmanian’s pretty Barracuda. Siroonian reached the semifinals but lost an 8.27 to 8.27 battle with Ray Alley.

A year prior, at the ’68 Winternationals, here’s the “Jungle” man himself, Jim Liberman, at speed in his Chevy II, competing in the S/XS class that would become Funny Car the following year, in which Clare Sanders would drive Liberman’s car to victory over the aforementioned Ray Alley.

Jack Ditmars’ notorious Mini Brute ’68 Opel Kadett was a real screamer (and real mini, when you see Ditmars standing in the door). Running unblown on nitro in the A/FA class, the car won the 1970 Winternationals Comp title over blown-gas ace (and future Pro Stock wheelman) Ken Dondero. 

Once wheelstanders became a craze, a relatively cheap, reliable, and hassle-free way for track promoters to add on to their Funny Car shows, the battle then became how to stand out. Bodystyles from all manner of cars, trucks, and vans (and, of course, a tank) battled for billings. One of the most unusual was the Backup Pickup, a Ford Econoline body bolted backwards on the chassis. Hollie Swindle had “the original” Backup Pickup in Missouri but sold it and George "Hollywood" Tuers made it a household name across the country. According to Lewis, it crashed on this run. “A guy was down fixing the top-end lights and the guy driving didn’t realize he was doing it, took off, and saw him at the last minute. He swerved to miss him and barrel-rolled it.”

OK, that’s the collection from the 1960s. You can find more of Ron’s photos online at Ron Lewis Racing Photos showcasing not just his drag racing work but other motorsports. I’ll share his 1970s and ‘80s photos in future columns, so keep an eye out for that. Thanks for visiting and for the patience and sporadic posting the last months. I’ve been traveling a lot and swamped with work, but even 10 years in I’m always excited to get a new column out.

Phil Burgess can reached at pburgess@nhra.com