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East Coast Funny Cars of the 1970s

The West Coast may have been Ground Zero for the Funny Car population explosion of the late 1960s and early 1970s, but the East Coast also had its share of memorable early floppers. Here's a look back at some of those wild rides.
17 Feb 2023
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
East Coast Funny Cars of the 1970s

After back-to-back features on East Coast Funny Car racers Frank Mancuso and Bruce Larson has come a hue and cry from the Insider Nation for a bigger sampling of the floppers that traversed the Eastern Seaboard, plying their trade and pleasing fans at hallowed match race venues like Maple Grove Raceway, Cecil County Drag-o-way, as well as at legendary East Coast facilities, including Aquasco, York U.S. 30, Capitol Raceway, and Raceway Park.

Fortunately for you guys, way back in 2009, former Division 1 Photographer Fred von Sholly gifted me with a huge collection of early 1970s match race images that included Funny Cars, Top Fuelers, Pro Stockers, and some Sportsman cars, some of which I compiled into a few columns back in the day (from which I will crib a bit here) but will expand into a full-blown East Coast revue because, hey, who ever gets tired of looking at the 1970s Funny Cars?

Von Sholly’s collection included not only eastern-based racers on their home turf but also some West Coast and Midwest invaders. Today, I’ll share pics of the home team and next week the “away” squad.

Here we go … fire the first pair.

Funny Cars of the 1970s were mean, nitro-snorting machines, and this photo of the late, great Lew Arrington and his popular Brutus Mustang at Aquasco sums that up well. Arrington raced out of Pennsylvania after beginning his career in California.

The late, great “Jungle Jim” Liberman was born in Pennsylvania, moved to California, then eventually migrated back east and settled in West Chester, Pa. This Camaro is one of his earliest rides.

The Santmyer & Fenner Camaro, driven by A.J. Lynch, is reported to be an ex-“Jungle” Camaro, probably not the one above but one of J.J.’s team cars that was driven by Pete Williams in 1970 to help fulfill the unsatiated desire to have the jungle man swing by your track.

Here’s Virginian Gene Altizer in his Logghe-chassised Big Ed's Speed Shop-sponsored Pak Rat Nova at Cecil County in 1971; this also-ex-"Jungle Jim" entry was one of the bad-ass injected cars of the era. Check out the square roll cage that was typical of these cars — a far cry from today's formfitting cages — and the not-quite-zoomie headers.

And speaking of Virginians. Here’s "Pee Wee" Wallace, who was arguably one of the best-known East Coast match racers. Wallace’s Virginian race cars (he hailed from Richmond), such as this Barracuda, were always clean, hard runners; he won the Division 1 championship three times. 

And yet another Virginian … here’s Kenny Warren at the wheel of his injected nitro car. Even without the blower, Warren was game to take on the supercharged cars in match races. His previous cars, all Dodges in the late 1960s, were named Virginia Twister.

Here’s a wild story. Joe Jacono switched from Top Fuelers to Funny Car, purchasing an ex-Bob Tasca SOHC Mustang, but that car was short-lived and lost to fire, but not on the racetrack. Shortly after Jacono earned his Funny Car ticket (Don Prudhomme and Connie Kalitta signed off on his license forms in Atco, N.J.), it's reported that, for unknown but imaginable reasons, a friend's girlfriend doused it with gasoline as it sat on the truck and set it ablaze. Undaunted, Jacono, of Wilmington, Del., partnered on the Brief Encounter flopper with tuner Biddy Winward. They bought this superfast ex-John Mazmanian car, formerly driven to a number of 220-mph speeds by Mazmanian shoe Rich Siroonian, right after the 1971 Winternationals. I believe that’s Casey Powell’s New Yorker in the far lane; his daughter, Cristen, followed him into the nitro ranks and won Top Fuel at the 1997 Summernationals and later drove in Funny Car for a number of owners, including Helen Hofmann.

Jim Maybeck's Screaming Eagle Funny Cars were primarily East Coast match racers, but his red, white, and blue paint schemes were hits with fans. The New York-based racer got his star-spangled start in Funny Cars in 1967 with a car he called Patriot, an ex-Bruce Larson USA-1 Chevelle that came pre-painted in those patriotic colors. A hard-running Corvair followed and was the first of the Screaming Eagle cars and gave way to this Rollie Linblad-built Camaro.

And speaking of Larson, the subject of last week’s column, here he is with his early USA-1 Camaro. Note the not-yet-zoomie headers.

Many consider Malcolm Durham to be drag racing's Jackie Robinson, the first black athlete in his field to make it to the big time. Durham's Maryland-based Strip Blazer Funny Cars helped break drag racing's color barrier. Durham, whose barrier-breaking efforts earned him a spot (No. 48) in NHRA's Top 50 drivers list in 2001, was an early Funny Car campaigner, going from A/FX to Funny Car in 1966 and later into Pro Stock. Check out the interesting location of the fire bottle in this shot.

Durham's efforts inspired other black racers to follow in his footsteps, including Lee Jones, who drove Strip Blazer entries for Durham after his own line of Jet Age Special floppers, such as the Chevy-powered '71 Camaro shown here. When Durham began focusing more on his Pro Stock efforts, Jones, who hailed from Washington, D.C., took over the nitro Funny Car reins up through the middle 1970s.

Western Bunns was another Durham protégé. He fielded a line of Soul Twister entries out of Danbury, Conn., beginning with this Chevy-powered Nova in 1971. The Nova was followed by a Vega that he ran for several seasons before a 1978 accident in North Carolina left him with a pair of broken legs and ended his career.

The King & Marshall team out of Rhode Island was one of the greats from the Northeast. Jimmy King drove his and Don Marshall’s Top Fueler to an upset win at the 1971 Gatornationals before the team, like many Top Fuel teams of the era, switched to Funny Car with this 'Cuda, backed by the New England Plymouth Dealers.

Arne Swensen and Bob Lani were a popular draw with their New Jersey-based Swensen & Lani cars like this Mustang. They were hardcore match racers and driver Swensen’s biggest win came at the 1973 NHRA Division 1 National Open at Cecil County.

Here’s Tom Sneden in his and Dave Reitz's Bob Banning Dodge-sponsored Challenger. Sneden worked his way up through the door car ranks beginning in the mid-1950s before working his way into Funny Car. This machine carried them to victory at the 32-car “King of Kings” event held at Capitol Raceway and Acquasco’s President’s Cup race.

The Castronovo family’s Utica, N.Y.-based Custom Body Enterprises cars were among the hardest-running in the region, and while driver Phil won only one race, it was the 1971 World Finals in Amarillo, Texas, which crowned them as that year’s world champions.

Before he piloted his memorable Scarsdale, N.Y.-based Twilight Zone Funny Cars, Bobby Lagana Sr. built this Challenger in his home shop for his switch from Pro Stock to Funny Car. Lagana went on to drive Ron Leaf’s Vega before he debuted the Twilight Zone, and his sons, Bobby Jr., and Dom, remain a big part of nitro racing tuning today after their own brief driving careers.

Just after his passing in August 2012, I wrote this column about Tim Kushi, a Pittsfield, Mass., racer who had been competing in the class since 1970, initially with Logghe-built Dodge Chargers and Challengers named Damn Yankee and only came to my attention due strictly to his inclusion in the famed Vallco Drag Racing board game.

George Reese from Hyattsville, Md., first gained notoriety with a pair of cars he dubbed "Long & Lean," which were basically a front-engine dragster chassis clad in stretched Corvette bodies bannering his business, George’s Corvette Shop. This later version, shown launching hard at Capitol Raceway, was a more conventional flopper.

Here's a home vs. away game with Bob Cain's cleverly named Hurri-cain 'Cuda out of Wilmington, Mass., taking on the Illinois-based, Gary Bolger-driven, Bud Richter-owned "Don Garlits" Charger. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the claim, but when the Hurri-Cain was restored decades later, the new owner claimed the vintage Logghe chassis in the car was originally Butch Leal‘s short-lived California Flash Barracuda.

OK, so there you have it. Obviously, this isn’t meant to be an encyclopedic look at East Coast Funny Cars, just the ones in the Von Sholly collection of 1970-73, and does not include other notables such as Al Hanna ("Eastern Raider"), Kosty Ivanof ("Tuff Enuf" and, later, "Boston Shaker"), Jim Fox ("Frantic Ford"), Jerry Caminito ("Holeshot"), Frank Federici ("Shark!"), Al Graeber ("Tickle Me Pink"), Joe Petrocelli ("Super Twister"), Terry Hedrick "(Super Shaker"), Ken Poffenbegrer and "Slammin' Sammy" Miller, Jake Crimmins, Bill Hardie ("Hardie & White"), "Rapid Roy" Harris, Pete Hill ("Hill Bros."), Barry "Machine Gun" Kelly, Bill Lawton, Bill Leavitt, Wayne Oxner, and many others.

Next week, a look at the away team that came east to challenge the hometown heroes on their own turf.

Phil Burgess can be reached at pburgess@nhra.com

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