It was a pretty tough week for drag racing with the losses of three successful and popular drivers from days gone by: female Alcohol Funny Car pioneer Carol “Bunny” Burkett and former Stock world champion Charlie Taylor, both drivers with whom most contemporary fans are popular familiar, and one from the ‘60s and early 1970s, Jack Ditmars, who perhaps was unknown to many current fans. After working up salutes to Burkett and Taylor earlier in the week, it’s Ditmars I’m here to celebrate today.
Ditmars is best remembered by fans as the skilled pilot of two wild, short-wheelbased machines, the Lil’ Screamer ’34 Ford and the Mini Brute ’68 Opel Kadett, both of which competed in match races and national event competition, and the famed Mini Brute often competed against and beat what would become known as Funny Cars before there ever existed a class for them.
Ditmars got the drag racing bug while still in high school in the Chicago area after witnessing Lloyd Scott’s Bustle Bomb break the mystical 150-mph barrier at the World Series of Drag Racing event held at Lawrenceville, Ill., in 1955. A year later after graduating high school, he began racing his D/G ’49 Ford and was a member Down River Modifieds hot rod club in Dearborn. Mich., after moving there with his mother, who was wholly supportive of her son’s interest in drag racing.
:: THE LIL SCREAMER ::
After relocating back to Chicago, Ditmars began working at Little’s Body Shop, where he met Herb Moller, who would be his longtime friend and racing partner. Together they built the first Lil Screamer and campaigned it at local tracks until it was destroyed in a 1961 garage fire. They built a second version that they began racing in early 1963.
With just a 90-inch wheelbase, the Lil Screamer was a handful and also prone to big wheelstands, but Ditmars nonetheless dominated the B/A ranks with class wins at the U.S. Nationals in 1964, 1965, and 1967.
To win the ’65 title, Ditmars had to outlast 45 other entries and defeated the first-gen Funny Cars of Don Nicholson, "Fast Eddie" Schartman, Phil Bonner, and, in the final, Dick Brannan’s factory-backed Mustang Funny Car.
To even further highlight a spectacular Indy outing, after the Lil Screamer won class, NHRA officials also set Ditmars up to race “Wild Bill” Shrewsberry and the Hemi Under Glass in a wheelstand exhibition the next day.
“The suspension of that car was unbelievably adjustable,” Moller told me by phone Thursday. ”We were able to slide the rear axle forward and put on a different set of wheelie bars. That car would do as big and long a wheelstand as you’d want. The car did big wheelstands right from the beginning of when we built it – even though that wasn’t really the plan – but then once we started getting paid because of the wheelstands, it was a lot of fun.”
Former National Dragster Editor Dick Wells wrote in Hot Rod magazine, “Lil’ Screamer did some wheelstands which almost tied Shrewsberry’s demonstrations in popularity. Jack has always been plagued with the high-ride tendency of his Chevy-equipped coupe, but for exhibition purposes at the Nationals, he removed the fifth wheel and showed what this hot rod from Illinois can do if it’s a show that’s on order. Of course, he’s probably riding with a new front end by now, but it was a spectacular show.”
The duo raced Lil Screamer until 1967 –- also winning class honors at the 1965 and 1966 Winternationals, extending the car’s popularity to the West Coast -- before contracting John Buttera to build the Mini Brute at his and Dennis Rollain’s R&B Chassis shop in Wisconsin.
:: THE MINI BRUTE ::
The Mini Brute, a ’68 Opel Kadett built on a 100-inch wheelbase and powered by a 513-cid 427 Chevy, injected on nitro, debuted at the 1968 Springnationals in Englishtown where, thanks to their body and paint background, won Best Appearing Car and Best Appearing Crew honors. By this time Ditmars and Moller were working for the Bauer Buick dealership in Harvey, Ill., which helped sponsor the car.
Ditmars won the AA/FA class trophy and defeated “Fast Eddie” Schartman’s Mercury Funny Car in round one before narrowly losing to “Ohio George” Montgomery’s AA/GS Mustang in Super Eliminator competition when the transmission popped out of gear.
Ditmars and Moller won Comp at the 1970 Winternationals and was also the runner-up at the Gatornationals and Springnationals. Ditmars also became a regular on the UDRA Midwest Injected Funny Car circuit with the Mini Brute, running 50 to 60 dates a season.
“We were having pretty good success, racing the local UDRA injected Funny Car circuit; at one point we won 13 meets in a row,” recalled Moller. “During the winter we’d go down to Florida and get involved in some of the blown car circuits. We’d win the injected race and then run the blown one the next day; we’d qualify and they would let us race and amend I we didn’t nearly win a lot of those. It was a pretty good weekend for us.”
Asked what made the Mini Brute success a success, Moller opined, “John Buttera was a genius chassis builder and Jack was an excellent driver, definitely Class A. He was always the first one to leave; back then they didn't have any [reaction times] but visually he always left on everybody; he used to drive people crazy.”
:: THE BOSS BRUTE ::
For the 1972 season, Ditmars built and drove a 109-inch wheelbase rear-engine injected Vega Funny Car he dubbed Boss Brute and put Moller in the driver’s seat of the Mini Brute.
“I went with the rear-engine design to provide more static weight on the rear tires, and because the car was very light, it was very quick,” Ditmars told National Dragster’s John Jodauga a few years ago. “But I sat so far forward that my knees were just about on top of the front axle, and it’s pretty hard to drive a car from that position.”
The car was short-lived and crashed at Indy Raceway Park a few weeks before the U.S. Nationals.
I interviewed Ditmars about the car way back in 2011, in the midst of a whole thread of columns about rear-engined Funny Cars, and he shared this with me.
“The car was faster than the Mini Brute, but not always; its best times were 7.40 e.t. and 191 mph,” he said. “We were just getting a handle on it when I crashed it at Indy. I believe we could have got 200 [mph] out of it if it didn’t kill me first. The very day I crashed it, when I got this car home, I cut up the body and later sold the chassis to a guy who made an Alcohol Dragster out of it. I miss the Opel and the Lil Screamer but NOT the Boss Brute.”
With a wheelbase of 109 inches, the car was a spooky handler.
“Like all the rear-engine cars, if anything went wrong that affected traction, you were in for the ride of your life. In my case, it was a valve cover gasket that blew out and oiled one tire. Because of the driver's vantage point, you were the last to know. The car sat only 46 inches off the ground to the top of the roof panel, kinda like a Dart and really low to the ground. This was not my finest hour, but only one other existed at the time, so tracks would go out of their way to get it there and paid a bit extra, too. Twice I lost it on the smoky burnout and did a 360 both times; the crowd loved it, but I was out of control. Talking to ‘Big’ [Don Garlits] about it, he said, ‘If it's not 250 inches in wheelbase, don’t drive it.' Good advice.”
Driving the car at night was especially challenging, but Ditmars had a solution for that, too.
“Look closely at the front of the car, and you can see a dowel rod right in the middle of the car coming out of the grille area,” he said. “This was a blue plastic rod that lit up at night and the only way this car could be driven; pretty scary in hindsight. All in all, was a great car that ended poorly.”
“It was a big mistake; everybody found whoever tried to make one found that out,” added Moller. “It made good passes when it went straight, but very seldom did it go straight. Jack hit the guardrail and the roof went flying off almost took his head with it and he decided he didn’t want to drive that car anymore.”
Ditmars returned to the wheel of the Mino Brute to finish his contracted schedule of dates with the Opel through early 1973, then retired. Ditmars had already opened a body shop with his friend Dan Knippel in 1972, which he operated until 1977 when he moved to Albuquerque, N.M., to work again for Bauer Buick. He left the dealership after it changed management in 1981, then opened his own body shop, Phase One, in Chicago in 1982. The business expanded so rapidly that the operation grew to a 20,000-square-foot building with as many as 25 employees, including old pal Moller.
:: RETIREMENT AND NEW PASSIONS ::
“I ended up working for like 22 years,” said Moller. I couldn't say anything bad about him. He always looked after me like I was his son or something you know, there were only five years difference in our ages. There were so many good times we had together; some of the best times were going to the national meets, especially when you win.
Ditmars also took up flying in 1973 with a twin-turboprop Cessna Conquest and later a turbocharged Cessna 210
Ditmars, a 2012 National Hot Rod Reunion Honoree, later relocated from Chicago and retired to Port Orange, Fla.
Of his racing career, Ditmars told Jodauga, “I’m glad that I did it at a time when I could afford it, and the sport of drag racing was very good to me. It helped make me a better businessman and taught me about the importance of attention to detail, which certainly helped me with my flying. And I never had a problem with going to the races after I quit driving. I plan to be in Brainerd and Indy this year, where I’ll be hanging out at 'the Greek’s' [Chris Karamesines] trailer. That’s something I always look forward to.”
[Worth seeing: Longtime Insider contributor/pal Dennis Friend has a wonderful gallery of all three cars mentioned above that you can find here.]
:: A 'FAST' FRIEND ::
Current-era Funny Car “Fast Jack” Beckman was a Ditmars fan, and vice-versa and met Ditmars through Karamesines, where he was blown away by Ditmars’ humbleness about his career, a trait he has found in many of the legends of the sport.
“In 2005 I was driving in Top Fuel, and there a line of people for my autograph and this real old tall guy comes up and I say, ‘What can I do for you?’ and just smiles,” Beckman recalled. “I say, ‘Did you want me to sign something for you, sir?’ and just as I was saying that I realize that it’s James fricking Warren, who was my idol growing up. Back when we were dating, [wife] Jenna had somehow gotten him to call me to wish me a happy birthday. I had never talked to the man before and didn’t recognize him at first.
“My point being is that these guys don't go around wearing a big shirt that says ‘I'm the shit,’ so when I met Jack Ditmars it's only because I recognized that name and asked somebody that I found out he was that guy.
“He never, ever would talk about, ‘Well, when I used to race, I did this or that.’ He was just another one of the guys hanging out in ‘Greek’s’ pit with fun stories if you cared to hear them.
“There weren’t many races that he didn’t text me, two or three times during the race weekends, and I’d always text him back. I just I thought it was so cool that he was excited for me to be racing and for us doing good.”
Just got the latest National Dragster. SIX pages of my hero, “Fast Jack” Beckman. Quite the storyline. You deserve ALL of it, Fast. I feel honored to be able to chat with you from time to time. To say you did it the hard way is an understatement. God bless you and your family for sharing your life story. And all your fans like this old buzzard. – Jack Ditmars text to Jack Beckman
“What kind of guy was Jack? He was going through kidney failure and having some major health issues and the kidney donor was a guy named Nelson, who was a mechanic that worked on Jack’s airplanes -- he always had airplanes -- that tells you what kind of friends they were and that tells you the kind of guy Jack was. He was that easy to get along with."
Another hero gone, but not forgotten, RIP Jack Ditmars.
Thanks to everyone for reading and sharing. Stay safe out there,
Phil Burgess can reached at [email protected]
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