Two days after receiving the news, I still hate myself. Well, maybe that's a bit strong, but I'm certainly very mad at myself.
Tuesday evening, we lost Butch Maas to cancer, and I lost my chance to glean from him his slice of firsthand drag racing history. I'm mad that I lost the race because I kept putting off a call to him because I was swamped with this or under deadline for that, not realizing that Butch's own deadline was approaching faster than I knew. Steve Gibbs and Leigh Buttera (among others) kept telling me I'd better get with it because the light was fading from him, and by the time I did call last week, he wasn't able to take calls anymore. I feel that I not only failed myself but that more importantly I failed him and you. I just always thought there was still time and had circled last week on my calendar as my first come-up-for-air day that I could spend as long on the phone as I needed to to hear Butch tell war stories, which I understand he was very good at. I only spoke once to Butch, sometime last year, and he talked my ear off, but I sadly didn’t take many notes, and it revolved solely around his time behind the wheel of Roland Leong's Hawaiian.
National DRAGSTER did get to tell Butch's story once, 14 long years ago in the Winternationals souvenir issue when the late Chris Martin did a "Where Are They Now?" article on him, which is reprinted in its entirety below, parts of which I used in the obituary I wrote Wednesday.
I've added photos, from our files and some sent by Steve Reyes. It's not the story the way I had hoped to tell it, but it's all that I have. And I hate that. Sorry, Butch.
(Above) Butch Maas debuted Mickey Thompson's Grand Am with a No. 1 qualifying berth at the 1973 Winternationals. (Below) With "Big Daddy" looking on, Maas wheeled Don Garlits' tricky-handling Wynns-liner at OCIR.
(Steve Reyes photos)
Maas' biggest win was at the 1971 Winternationals in Roland Leong's Hawaiian.
Probably no professional driver except Butch Maas can list Don Garlits, Don Prudhomme, and the late Mickey Thompson as employers on his or her driver-for-hire résumé. The Los Angeles-born, San Bernardino-bred Californian drove for those three Hall of Famers and a dozen other top acts in his nearly 20-year career.
In 1970, Maas wheeled Prudhomme's U.S. Nationals-winning dragster to a 6.68 for the No. 1 Top Fuel spot at the inaugural NHRA Supernationals at Ontario Motor Speedway. Three years later, he drove Mickey Thompson's Pontiac Grand Am Funny Car to a low-qualifying 7.18 at the 1973 Winternationals, and that summer, Maas wheeled Garlits' legendary "Jocko" Johnson-designed Top Fuel streamliner at Orange County Int'l Raceway in AHRA Grand American competition.
Taken by themselves, these three accomplishments sound like answers in some trivia quiz, but Maas' career was anything but trivial. At this year's Chief Auto Parts Winternationals, Maas will be celebrating the 25th anniversary of one of his major triumphs, his 1971 Funny Car win in Pomona. At that event, he drove Roland Leong's Hawaiian Dodge Charger to low e.t. and top speed of the class in a final-round 6.93, 212.76 win over Leroy Goldstein and the Ramchargers Dodge Challenger.
Maas began racing while he was in the U.S. Navy, stationed in San Diego. On weekend furloughs, he and his high-school pal, the late 1966 U.S. Nationals Top Fuel champ, Mike Snively, raced each other at Cotton Dragstrip. Eventually, Maas got a chance to drive his first real race car, the Norm Porter-tuned, Dodge-powered, Jerry Howard-owned altered roadster. Though still in the Navy, Maas began to drive other fast cars, including the Scotty's Muffler and the Highland Speed Center roadsters and Sam Rose's Junior Fuel dragster.
Maas got in trouble after he crashed the Rose dragster in San Fernando while racing Danny Ongais' Top Gas dragster. He broke his left arm, which irked his U.S. Navy superiors because military policy discouraged personnel from driving 180-mph nitro dragsters. Neither their disapproval nor his broken arm discouraged Maas.
"While I was in the service, I met Mike Williams, a race fan from Texas, and we went to the 1963 Bakersfield March Meet," Maas recalled. "In Bakersfield, he introduced me to Jim Bush, part owner of the Texas-based Bush & Payne Top Fuel dragster, and I got to drive their dragster at that event. I loved it, and I drove nothing but blown cars ever since."
Maas driving the Berry Brothers car at Irwindale
(Jere Alhadeff photo)
Maas at the wheel of the Waters & Maas fuel dragster
(Steve Reyes photo)
Maas, left, in the winner's circle with car owner Leong, crewmember Dickie Watson, and track manager Steve Evans, right.
(Steve Reyes photo)
Reyes' photo says it all of the demise of the Mickey Thompson Grand Am at the 1973 Gatornationals. Maas was badly burned but bounced back.
Maas' driving jobs were many and varied. After leaving the service, he drove the Redd-Nelson-Spratt Savage, Bill Martin's 400 Jr., and Bill Crossley's Crusader Top Fuelers. He drove for Larry Stellings, Tony Waters, the Berry brothers, Bob Creitz and Ed Donovan, Prudhomme, and Thompson.
He also wheeled Leong's Funny Cars, Al Bergler's Motown Shaker, the Rossi & Lisa rear-engine Top Fueler (his only rear-motored experience), and his last ride, Bill Smallwood's Plymouth Satellite Funny Car.
"It's hard to pick a favorite car because most stand out in some way," said Maas. "In 1965, I was one of the first drivers to exceed 200 mph with a Chevy in the Martin car, and in 1967, I set the Irwindale track record at 226.12 mph in Crossley's car. In 1972, I was on the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Funny Car Stars circuit with the Motown Shaker.
"I did a lot of my touring with the Hawaiian and Motown Shaker cars and learned the match racing trade. Many times, I'd drive all night to make a show and would arrive just in time to put in the oil and get in line.
"We ran every conceivable type of track. In 1971, I drove the Hawaiian and was matched against Richard's Blue Max Mustang in Spartansburg, S.C., for a best-of-three go. When we got there, Tharp and I watched the track manager set a piece of conduit with a light bulb on top on the centerline at the 1,000-foot mark. When we asked what he was doing, he told us not to run a full quarter because we would never get stopped. We walked the track and found he was right. It was a narrow, short track that ran off into the weeds and rocks on the top end.
"Tharp and I agreed we'd split the first two rounds – one of us would shut off and let the other win – then we'd race the 1,000 feet in the third. In the final, we went at it full bore and were dead even going down the track. We ignored the earlier warnings and shot right past those lights and went quarter the full. Neither Tharp nor l got stopped, and we plowed into the weeds and tore up the bodies on both cars. Our two teams were able to repair the cars that night, and I was able to barely make a Delmar, Del., race the next day.'
Oddly, one of Maas' favorite rides was the MIckey Thompson Revelleader Pontiac Grand Am, a car that nearly became a 220-mph coffin. The Buttera-built car met its demise at the 1973 Gatornationals when an engine fire torched it and 50 percent of Maas' body. Maas spent two months in the Shands hospital burn center near Gainesville before being released to recover at home.
After that incident, he briefly drove Garlits' streamliner and the Smallwood Satellite before wrapping up his career in mid-1974.
Today [Ed note: Remember, this was written 14 years ago]
Maas lives in Corona, Calif., and works for Salt Lake City-based Ray Bethers Trucking. When he's not wheeling the big rig, he skis, plays golf, and collects Mauser rifles. Like most retired race drivers, he has no regrets about his 15 years in the sport.
"I can't believe anybody in this sport would have had a career saying they hated it," Maas said. "The fire with the Thompson car and the one I had at Edgewater Raceway [in Cleves, Ohio] in 1971 with the Hawaiian were no fun, but they were outweighed by more positive things.
"If I have any regrets, it's that I got out when I did; I'd still Iove to be involved in some way. I'm going to get a little taste of it at the Winternationals this year. I was told I might get to do some color commentary during the Funny Car action."
Butch has left us, but our memories of him will linger. I'm sorry I wasn't able to share his story with you in greater detail. For now, he joins the ever-growing list of racing heroes who have left us but who are remembered on the In Memoriam page of the We Did It For Love website. Drop by and take time to remember the others whom Maas will no doubt be racing in drag racing heaven, and in the meantime, be sure to enjoy those who are still with us. Ask them those questions before it's too late.
Although carbon fiber has replaced fiberglass as the material of choice for Funny Car bodies, there's not a longtime fan around who doesn't recall Steve Evans hawking flopper shows and promising fans that "the pits will look like a fiberglass forest."
Every trend has to have its ground zero, and for the fiberglass-bodied Funny Car, that was Chicago, at the inspiration of Ron Pellegrini and the hand of Chuck Veseley, whose one-off garage-built Super Mustang project turned into Fiberglass Ltd., the first and premier manufacturer of Funny Car bodies from the mid-1960s well into the 1970s.
(Above) Ron Pellegrini's road to Funny Car fame began with this Ford Thunderbolt, campaigned for Hawkinson Ford. (Below) The powertrain from the Thunderbolt was later transferred into this successful Mustang.
It was a chance meeting at a Detroit auto show between promoter Pellegrini, who had raced gas dragsters for years and even piloted Tommy Ivo's four-engine Showboat, and a representative from Chicagoland car dealer Hawkinson Ford that got the ball rolling.
"I had a big racing display there, and he told me he thought he could get some money out of Ford through their dealer-development program and would I be interested in doing some work for them," Pellegrini recalled. "He bought three Hi-Riser Thunderbolts, and I started racing one of them. I was pretty successful with that car, so I told him I'd like to build a Mustang. He got a brand-new Mustang from the factory, and we put the entire Thunderbolt combination in the Mustang and were very successful with that, too, running in A/FX. We won a big race at U.S. 30, won the World Series at Cordova, and a bunch of others in a three-month span. We ran the Mustang at Ford proving grounds because I was hoping that I would get the same kind of deal that Dearborn Steel and Tubing had with Ford, which was to build 100 cars for them, but I never got that deal, but I did get to meet [Ford Racing chief] Jacque Passino.
"Over the winter, I was watching what Chrysler was doing with their A/FX cars, altering the wheelbase and using acid-dipping to lighten them. I went back to Jacque and told him Ford needed to build a tube-chassis car with an all-fiberglass body. The decision on whether or not to build it dragged on into 1965, but I went ahead and started booking the car anyway, even though I didn't even have it yet.
"They finally came back and told me they didn’t want to do it because the car would be too light and that it would never run good, so I decided to do it myself."
Pellegrini, left, Chuck Veseley, and the car that started it all
Pellegrini took a brand-new Mustang to a local fiberglass shop where, by chance, former schoolmate Veseley was working. They hadn't seen each other in a dozen years, but before long, Pellegrini had drafted his former chum to build the first mold in his home garage. Pellegrini bought the Dennison, Arlasky, and Knox fuel roadster and tucked it beneath their fiberglass Ford shell, and the Super Mustang was created.
It didn’t take long for the interest of their peers to be piqued, and requests for similar bodies began to roll in. Pellegrini and Veseley created Fiberglass Ltd. and in November 1965 went into the full-time business of making fiberglass auto parts -- front ends, doors, lids, fenders, hood scoops, plus special projects such as silo caps and even ambulance tops – and it was heaven to Funny Car racers wanting fiberglass versions of their favorite cars. The Mr. Norm team and Arnie Beswick were among his earliest customers.
"We had nothing in the bank so to speak of," Pellegrini told Bob Hegge, who penned a story about the company for the June 1967 edition of Rod & Custom, from which some of these photos are reproduced. "We rented some space, had a few hand tools, a couple of hand drills, and some material for glass working. Most of all, we had Chuck's fiberglass knowledge. I knew nothing about making bodies."
Fiberglass Ltd.'s shop on Washington Boulevard, circa 1967
Workers waxed the inside of a mold for easier removal of bodies.
Putting the finishing touches on a Camaro body
In five months, they had outgrown a 2,500-square-foot shop and outgrew its 4,800-square-foot replacement before finding a permanent home in a 13,000-square-foot shop on Washington Boulevard in Hillside, Ill., in February 1967. They were learning along the way how to build better Funny Car bodies, and the early process was very labor-intensive. "No one had done this before; it was all trial and error," he noted.
"Making the first mold would probably take 10 days from beginning to end," he remembered. "First you’d have to clay in all of the cracks so you could pull the mold off, and that alone would take two to three days. You'd have to put clay in the grille openings, the taillights, the molding around the windshield. Then we'd spray it with PBA, which was a parting agent, so the fiberglass wouldn't stick to the car, then you’d spray the gelcoat on it, then you laid the body on it.
"Once we had the mold of the stock car, we'd take the front and rear wheelwells out and then put a cap on them [for tire clearance], then relay the altered fender. It took forever, and we were falling behind more and more, and the bodies were heavy as sin anyway with all of the add-on parts, so we decided to make a second mold of a changed body, and that really speeded things up."
That process proved necessary when Dodge introduced its new Charger body, which was super-swoopy but also very large and led to the development of the narrow, smaller mini Charger.
"We must have cut the Charger body into 100 pieces," said Pellegrini, "and every time we put it together, it never fit exactly right because of all of the compound curves, so we were screwing parts on here and there. Once we got it right, we were able to make a mold. The Charger was so much bigger than the Barracuda that I tried to bring it into the size of the Barracuda. The main thing I wanted to do was move the blower location. On these cars, the blower was under the hood in front of the windshield, so an explosion would lift the whole body off. I elongated the body so that it was more in the windshield area."
The duo later got the idea to add phenolic balls, which had been developed during World War II to protect wooden aircraft-carrier decks, into their fiberglass mix to strengthen the wheelwells without adding a lot of weight. Pellegrini and Veseley also began adding foam strips to the underside of the hood and roofs to stop the bodies from collapsing at the higher speeds quickly being attained.
The Dodge Chargers of Romeo Palamides (top) and Don Schumacher (above) were two of the bodies to come out of the Fiberglass Ltd. shop.
During this time, Pellegrini partnered with John Buttera and Dennis Rollain of R&B Engineering to form Automotive Research and Engineering to build ready-ro-run race cars, and their customers included Don Gay Sr. and Chicagoan Don Schumacher.
"We leased out part of the shop to Acme Coil and Transformer and Schumacher Electric for Don Schumacher to race out of," said Pellegrini. "His dad, Al, asked me to keep an eye on him because the kid was fearless. He had a new Olds 442 that he wanted me to duplicate, but we ended up building him a whole car instead."
Business was booming, and bodies – at a now-modest-sounding price of $1,000 apiece -- were flying out the door as fast as they could make them.
We were making four or five bodies a week, working a shift and a half to stay up with the demand," he remembered. "Don Hardy used to come and pick up four at a time, and we'd ship to Logghe every weekend."
Marv Eldridge's Fiberglass Trends on the West Coast emerged as his only legitimate rival, though "some fly-by-night operators down South" began taking Fiberglass Ltd.'s bodies and making their own molds.
"I was getting tired of people just duplicating the second mold; they had no investment in it, no hard work to make the body, but they were profiting from our work," said Pellegrini. "I got so frustrated that I had a Mustang about 80 percent done, but I just cut it up.
Before long, Fiberglass Ltd. began focusing on other fiberglass pieces, including a simulated wheel and trunk for a Thunderbird to replicate the Lincoln Town Car look, and that business, Uni-Corp., really took off, too. "We'd make 30 to 40 decklids a day, and I eventually sold that business to a guy who was making grille caps for the same kinds of cars.
One of Pellegrini's final Funny Car rides was this Dodge Charger, which bannered the newly created merger company Uni-Sun.
Pellegrini partnered with that guy, whose name was John Martino, whose parents, June and Louis, were early part owners in the McDonald's Corp. They merged Uni-Corp. with Martino's company, USA Sunroof, to create Uni-Sun, which Pellegrini ran for five years. Martino also had another company, Avanti, maker of radio antennas, which Pellegrini eventually ran, too, and his timing was impeccable as it was during the CB radio boom of the 1970s.
"I took it from a $600,000-a-year company to $18 million a year before I retired in 1978. Chicago Funny Car shoe Ron Colson also was an Avanti employee, which eventually led to Avanti's sponsorship of the Colson-driven Hawaiian.
Today, Pellegrini, 75, lives with wife Adele in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
I devoted most of yesterday to trying to make some of the phone calls I mentioned in the column a week ago and trying to at least touch base with some of the people I've yet to reach but have promised myself I would.
Mickey Thompson, Butch Maas, and the Revelleader Grand Am
Minding my own cues from Tuesday's missive about time working against us, my first call was to Butch Maas, who's battling some pretty serious health issues. Maas and I spoke more than a year ago when I called to ask about his tenure behind the wheel of the Hawaiian for the article I was writing about the merry-go-round that was the cockpit of Roland Leong's car. He had an amazing career, both in Top Fuel and Funny Car, and drove for the likes of Mickey Thompson, Don Garlits, and Don Prudhomme, which is interesting in itself because you don’t really picture the latter two guys as just handing their car to anyone, but they did to Maas.
I also wanted to talk to Maas about the car he once called his favorite ride – and it's also one of my favorite cars – Thompson's unique Grand Am. Maas' time in the car was rather short yet spectacular – low qualifier at the 1973 Winternationals and a serious fire at the Gatornationals – and just part of the weird (some might say "jinxed") legacy of this car.
I couldn't get Butch on the line, so I instead called the guy who built that body for Thompson, Ron Pellegrini, whose Chicago-based company, Fiberglass Ltd., was the first to mass-produce fiberglass-replica bodies in the earliest days of the glass. Pellegrini's own altered-wheelbase Mustang, the Super Mustang, was the sport's first true fiberglass-bodied Funny Car and led directly to the founding of Fiberglass Ltd. It's an interesting tale, one that I'll share here in the weeks ahead.
The main reason for calling Pellegrini was to get his recount of the founding of the International Funny Car Association, which I first showed off here a few weeks ago with photos sent by Jim Farnsworth. Pellegrini was in on the ground floor of the founding of IFCA, so I wanted to hear his story about the circuit and what happened to it, which you can read below.
While waiting for Maas to return my call, I also tracked down Dale Pulde for his insight into the Thompson Grand Am; Pulde and then crew chief Steve Montrelli had actually put the car together (and ran it at Lions' Last Drag Race in December 1972) before Maas replaced Pulde in the car for the 1973 opener. Pulde, who ended up back behind the wheel a few months later after Maas' horrific fire at the Gatornationals, had a great recall of the details behind the car's many incarnations and drivers, which I'll share when I do that article.
I also dropped an e-mail to Larry "Kingfish" Arnold, who briefly drove the Grand Am, and tracked down a number for Bob Pickett, who was the car's final driver. I plan to talk to both of them within the week and hope to write the story shortly thereafter. Whew.
OK, so on to Pellegrini and IFCA, then some feedback and more injected Funny Car pics to close the week.
Today: Ron Pellegrini and his wife, Adele
The International Funny Car Association was an offshoot of the Midwest United Drag Racers Association. To backtrack quickly, UDRA was formed in 1964 – and led by Tom McEwen – as a sort of a racers' rights body, pushing for increased purses and increased safety. Despite the diligence of NHRA and AHRA, a lot of drivers were getting hurt and even killed in the sport's experimental early years, and UDRA pushed for even more stringent rules. Although founded in Southern California, other chapters quickly popped up across the country.
Originally formed as the Chicago chapter of UDRA, the Midwest UDRA was incorporated in 1966 with founding members that included Pellegrini, Joe Turek (its first president), Ed Rachansky (its second leader), John McReynolds, John Farkonas, Pat Minick, Gary Dyer, and others.
"We decided to create some circuits within the UDRA to raise money for the association, and because I was making Funny Car bodies at the time, I became the director of the Funny Car circuits," he said. "Our Funny Car circuits got real popular, more so than the others; we'd have at least two dates every weekend, and the others might have four or five a year. We were so popular that we had to start booking us outside of the Chicago area to allow some of the other circuits to get more bookings, sometimes 300 to 400 miles out. Everybody had a real job, and the travel was too much, so they came to me and said, 'We don’t want to travel anymore,' and asked if we could form our own association outside of the Midwest UDRA. That's when I started the International Funny Car Association. We ran for three or four years with the injected cars before we switched over to blown on alcohol.
"We had it so fine-tuned that Bob Daniels, who was the Division 3 director, later came to me to form a new circuit, NHRA Pro Am lll, that he wanted to use as a prototype within NHRA for doing it with other classes as well. We ran that in 1976-77, and I served as circuit director. We must have had 30 cars at the time, and some big names, too. Frank Hawley was part of it, Dick Titsworth, Don Gerardot, Marlis Williams, Freddie Hagen, Bob Gottschalk, Vern Moats, and so many others. Dale Armstrong even ran a few times.
"The fans loved us because, honestly, the cars ran and sounded good, and we were the main show; they didn’t have anything to compare us to. The Coke circuit [blown nitro Funny Cars in the Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars] was running at the time but not really in our area."
Pellegrini, who as mentioned earlier competed in Funny Car, never drove in these series, though he did own a few cars that did, and he'd turn the body and chassis over to teams to run with their own engines.
Coincidentally, I received an e-mail from former Division 3 photographer Richard Brady, who served as the photographer for the Pro Am III circuit.
"Pellegrini had been learning to fly a helicopter, so it was decided that Pellegrini would fly from Chicago down to Indianapolis (where I was living at this time) to get me, and off we'd go to the first two events so he could run the races and I could capture on film the cars of this newly formed circuit. On the appointed day, Pellegrini and his pilot trainer and his wife landed at the small airport of Eagle Creek near IRP, where they stopped long enough to get me, my suitcase, and the huge black, metal camera case with all my Pentax 6x7 cameras, and off we went.
Don Gerardot, at Anonymous Raceway Park
"I was the lucky one selected to be the photographer of record for this circuit along with doing a story from each of the races held and to get it published in National DRAGSTER. I should also point out that I was the official Division 3 photographer doing all the Division 3 points meets and as many of the major NHRA events that I could get to, so I was asked by Daniels to go to the first two or three of these events to get the photography but that I was to shoot all the cars without getting any track towers or structures in the background of my shots. This way, for those events I wasn't going to be at -- which was pretty much all of them after the first two or three -- I could pull a negative of the winner and along with my story of the race itself get it in the Wednesday mail and on its way to DRAGSTER! I was to be paid a whole $75 for each of these race stories, which at the time seemed like I had won a small lottery. If you go back and look at those stories that were printed, if the same car won, it was the same photo that was run no matter the facility! To break it up, I'd throw in other action of other cars besides the winner, but unless you knew the tracks, the circuit got its stories run, and not many were wise to it."
Feedback Friday: Regular Insider contributor Cliff Morgan agreed with my assessment of this column's unexpected role in expanding the history of the sport by filling in the blanks. "I think you're dead-on with what you're doing," he wrote. "People have come out of the woodwork with stories, both racers and spectators, and it really gives a new perspective to what has happened over the years. It's like we're all writing history for future generations. I think the only thing I haven't seen much of is stuff from the beginning, like early '50s. I know that we're losing a lot of folks from that era, and what they did laid the foundation for what we have today.
"On a side note, Jeff Foulk wondered how the injected nitro floppers would have evolved if the class had stayed around. Sometimes I have a fantasy of what drag racing would be like with no blowers. If the Top Fuelers and Funny Cars of today had to run injected, how fast would they go? I'm thinking that even with 500-inch motors, Top Fuel would be in the 4.80s and knocking on the door of 300 mph, and the Funny Cars would be, say, two- to three-tenths slower and maybe 5- to 10-mph slower in speed. Of course, if I really go nuts, I can imagine "Pro Mod" Top Fuel and Funny Car, i.e., 900-cid motors with nitrous and nitro. I don't think those cars would be too much slower than the nitro cars that run now. Interesting to think of what a combination like that would do. That would be Jeff Foulk's ultimate injected Funny Car -- what a monster that would be!"
John Leonard had an additional comment about Dan Glover's ex-Wonder Wagon machine; I haven’t been able to verify his claim but find it interesting nonetheless. "The Wonder Wagon Funny Car actually started its life as the second Midnight Skulker Funny Car that Ray Zeller had John Buterra build," he explained. "Ray only ran the car a couple of times with Stan Shiroma driving it. The money man that paid for it got in a fight with Ray and pulled out of funding the car. He (the money man) sold the car back to John Buttera, and he in turn sold it to Don Schumacher, and that's when it became the Wonder Wagon."
And, finally, for your viewing enjoyment, a slew of injected Funny Car photos from the prolific Bob Snyder, circa 1968-69.
Those of you who have followed this column since its inception July 23, 2007, some 380 entries ago according to my quick math, have seen this column evolve into its current format. Originally, it was conceived as a behind-the-scenes look at how National DRAGSTER was produced and a place to talk about what stories we were working on.
It kind of struggled along with a lackluster audience until mid-September of that year, when I got an out-of-the-blue phone call from former U.S. Nationals Top Fuel champ Marvin Graham, who was calling to report the death of his longtime crew chief Chester Garris. As we talked, the reporter in me kicked in, and I asked him about his career, heard some things I'd never heard, hung on every word, and wrote a column about talking with him. The reception was overwhelming, and by word of mouth, the page views of that article shot through the roof.
It was an epiphany for me. I considered myself somewhat of a drag racing history expert – a collective knowledge borne from teenage years of reading magazines and books and watching TV shows and later, of course, firsthand witness – and I realized that so much of what we as fans know about the sport is seared into our brains from multiple accounts that pretty much back up one another. Yet I soon found that there were so many untold tales that needed to be told, subtle nuances that could be layered on the foundation of already-known facts and oft-repeated recounts. So that's where the direction this column went and never looked back.
I began using the tagline "The stories behind the stories" and uncovered fascinating nuances that filled in some of the gaps – it's still happening; for example, in my recent account in National DRAGSTER of the real story behind Jeb Allen's Garlits-busting 5.62 run in Gainesville in 1981 – and was surprised that many of these stories had never been published. Getting the racers to understand that these tidbits of trivial matter might be almost as important as the deeds themselves took some doing and some scratched heads as to why I wanted to know specific details on this or that, but the readers got it. Before long, I was adding the readers' perspective and -- at least at first – unknowingly adding new sentences and paragraphs and even pages to the history book of our sport through the firsthand accounts of those who witnessed these great moments. Longtime Insider reader Mark Watkins, in a very kind post a while ago on Nitromater, likened what goes on here to the new technology of "cloud computing," where all of the assets are out there for all to see and add to.
All of this is a rambling preamble to today's column, another submission from former Funny Car racer Jeff Foulk, who hit me square between the eyes with this comment: "Once us old guys are gone, there will be no one to ask. I dare say there are lots of history buffs who would kill for the chance to talk to a Civil War vet or a witness to the doings of the Wild West. More people (like myself) should keep this in mind and not be stingy with our recollections. There is no substitute for having been there."
That's so true, and as the list of passings continues to grow each year and the oral history is lost, many of us are quietly panicking but also taking action. You might be familiar with Project 1320, which is a dedicated effort by a group that is also racing nature's deadline to accumulate the remembrances of our sport's heroes. It's kind of like losing that great-grandfather in your family, or even your own parents. There's a finite amount of time to probe their memories and ask all of the questions you ever wanted to ask. Don't be afraid to ask, and always be ready to hear.
In a recent issue of National DRAGSTER, I quoted the following line from Tommy Lee Jones' opening monologue in the film No Country for Old Men because it resonated with me: "I always liked to hear about the old-timers. Never missed a chance to do so." Sometimes, like today, it's best just to let the old-timers tell it themselves. Take it away, Jeff …
"One aspect of the original Funny Car craze that I should have mentioned is exactly how squirrelly the cars really were. You have to remember that they evolved directly from the factory F/X and match race stockers. Once Chrysler took off the gloves with the altered-wheelbase cars, the lid was off the bottle. At first, Ford prohibited their drivers from running match races against the Mopar-backed cars. The Ford drivers took a lot of heat for it but had no choice but comply or lose their sponsorship. Ford knew their A/FX cars were overmatched. The solution soon became apparent: nitro! As I remember it, 'Dyno Don' Nicholson and his stock-bodied Comet were first to make the move. The Mopars soon followed suit. Then, of course, came Ford's reply, with the Logghe-chassised flip-top Comets.
"Because the cars had evolved from basically stock-bodied cars with full suspension, the first Funny Cars continued to use the stock suspension systems. We were about making horsepower; suspension and chassis didn't win races. We didn't know; we were making it up on the fly. As a result, loads of power made for some rather dodgy handling characteristics. This was actually a double-edged sword: Although you might be virtually out of control, and literally sideways, you still could drive the car. This made for some really crossed-up runs, which the fans ate up. I can remember leaving the line, going to the edge of the track and back to the centerline, then back to the center, all in low gear! They were a lot more fun to drive than the later cars. It was very frustrating, after many trips into the grass, to realize that I couldn't 'drive' my solid rear car the way I used to my old one. The solid cars were basically point it and pray; once they were crossed up, there was no driving it, no matter how brave or stubborn you were. Then they added guardrails, so you couldn't even venture into the grass. They took all the color out of the game! I think it is an interesting stat to contemplate that today's Hemi Challenge cars were 10.20 cars back in the '60s. Now they run as quick as most of the injected Funnies back in my day. Makes you wonder how our car would have evolved."
Foulk also shared information about the restoration that his original Cougar is undergoing at the hands of Don Sedo.
"My old car will probably be the most authentic restoration in history because it will have the actual, original engine that was actually used in the car on the first go-round," he reported. "This would be quite a stretch for most cases, but for us, it is true. After I retired the Cougar, we had built the GT-40 car with a Boss 351 motor. The old 289 (348), which was pretty tired, was retired and relegated to a corner of the garage. I tried to sell it, but no one serious emerged, so I kept it. It made two brief comebacks, after freshening up, most recently in my crewman Charlie Gilmore's nostalgia dragster. It was in my brother's basement in Pennsylvania when I first came in contact with Don Sedo after he acquired the Cougar. It was picked up and now resides in Canada in its original chassis. The crank, eight rods, six pistons, original oft-repaired heads, and the remaining one of two blocks I had originally built for my Mustang, way back in 1966. Hard to believe, but true. The longevity can be attributed to faithful maintenance, necessity (it was the only engine I had for the Cougar), and the foresight to equip it with a full crank lower end support. I always felt that without the girdle, I would long ago have laid the crank on the ground, especially on a steady diet of 90 percent nitro. It also still has the Hilborn injectors, Vertex mag, and Weiand front cover to mount the fuel pump. Don also has one of two original Fairbanks C-4 transmissions."
As an interesting sidenote and a tale lost to time, our old pal and veteran automotive scribe Rick Voeglin has taken note of Foulk's recent submissions and pointed out that "Jeff didn't mention his shining moment in the pages of Super Stock and Drag Illustrated. An impossibly young Jim McCraw, then SS&DI editor, earned his Experimental Stock NHRA Competition Driver License behind the wheel of the Finagler. Craw's exploits were featured in a five-page article in the February 1969 issue, 'SS&DI Drives a Fuel Funny Car.' He made the required three passes, going 9.91, 138.45 on his final run on 75 percent nitro (good enough for Super Gas these days). There's even a shot of his license signed by Buster Couch. So long before Jon Asher's infamous "I Drove a Funny Car on Fire!" feature, McCraw had already been there and done that (sans flames, fortunately)."
Thanks, Jeff. Interesting info as always. I still have more stuff to share on injected Funny Cars, including a ton of photos you guys have sent, before we move on to other topics. I'm also always interested to get "requests" for what you’d like to read about, sort of an online Readers Choice like we do annually in National DRAGSTER. Let me hear from you (as if I have to ask).
Speaking of restorations and getting back old cars, I got an e-mail this week from Darrell Gwynn, who's looking for his first dragster, which may well have been one of the sport's first "Jr. Dragsters." That's it above.
Darrell's dad, Jerry, built the car out of electrical conduit in 1967. At the time, it had a four-horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine and was belt-driven. Darrell said that he believes the wheels were from a Karmann Ghia.
"I am trying to get my hands on that car," he wrote. "I sold that car for $200 to buy a motorcycle; pretty stupid, huh? I am really hopeful that it is out there and that your readers can help."