Sorry for the prolonged absence, but between travel to and from Charlotte for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, the rain delay there, and a jam-packed issue of National DRAGSTER that not only includes Charlotte results but also our in-depth coverage of the JEGS NHRA Cajun SPORTSnationals and March Meet coverage, it has been a busy few days.
More tidbits keep flowing in surrounding Connie Kalitta's crash of "Poncho" Rendon's wedge Top Fueler at the 1971 Nationals.
Many had posited that the run was Kalitta's first in the car, but Roy Nau says that he saw Kalitta wheel the car at Tri-City Dragway Aug. 22 of that year. He's sure of the date because of a baseball game
"I was 8 years old at the time and remember the wedge because it looked like the 'Snake's,' " said Nau. "Connie Kalitta was working on both the dragster and Shirley Muldowney’s Funny Car. I remember it was a Saturday because my brother didn't go with my dad and me because his Boy Scout troop went to the Detroit Tigers game that day against Milwaukee. Shirley gave me one of her promo pictures (I don't have it anymore), John Muldowney was there, I think they said he was 13 at the time, and 'the Snake,' Gene Snow, Don Schumacher, Gary Dyer, Pat Minick, Leroy Goldstein in the Ramchargers, and 'the Goose' were all there."
(Milwaukee won, 2-1 with Marty Pattin on the hill for the Brewers. Amazing what you can find on the Internet.)
Veteran Division 4 track manager Glenn Menard was in Indy and offered his remembrances of the Kalitta crash. "I was assisting Dale Ham in monitor control, and as [Kalitta] crashed, I grabbed the binoculars to see what was left after the Marathon sign pieces and body parts quit flying. First, we tried to find Rickman, and he was OK. Then we were searching the shutoff area looking for Kalitta, with little luck. There didn’t appear to be any pieces big enough to be Connie. Finally, an NHRA official ran over to something in the track, and it turned out to be Connie, in what was left of the cage."
My old pal Todd Veney – semifinalist in Gainesville in his debut in the Follow A Dream Top Alcohol Funny Car! -- weighed in concerning my doubts about Indy being the location of the second wedge photo. "That pic is absolutely from Indy," he stated. "Behind the starting line, the right side of the track used to sweep back around and into the lanes through 1979. In 1980, they made it run straight back and had a chain-link fence to separate the pits from the starting-line apron. I think that was also the year that NHRA moved the Funny Car pits from the left side of the track to the right, which until then was for Top Fuel, Pro Comp, and Comp."
The pit move for the flops forever ended the annual battle for "the slab," a small but prime piece of paved real estate haggled over by Funny Car crews for years. Much skullduggery was conjured up as teams tried to maneuver to the spot first before it became a rule of sorts that the defending event champ got it.
Last week, I included Tommy Ivo's note about how the producers of Heart Like a Wheel crashed the wedge for the movie, and former Funny Car racer Jeff Courtie, who has been in the movie sound business for years, said that he also worked on the film. "I was the recordist on the Foley stage at the time. The sound of Connie's car crashing into the guardrail was quite a complex sound. First the Foley artists (Bill Phillips was the sound supervisor and his crew) ran a body grinder on a car hood, then scraped the hood along the floor, adding some dirt and debris. On another track, they banged and dragged a bunch of different-size metal pieces to simulate the sound of the car breaking apart. It was also sweetened with sound effects from the sound library; turned out pretty cool for the time."
And now you know. Play the clip and see if you can hear it all.
Scrutinizing the clip, Paul Kaufman, who works for the wonderful folks at World Products who sponsor this column, said he couldn't help but notice that the engine from Kalitta's car as it tumbled down the track had no crankshaft in it. "I've seen lots of engines torn out of mangled race cars in my 40-plus years of watching, but I've never seen one lose the crank," said Kaufman, who with partner and driver Dennis Ferrara won the Comp world championship in 1977. "It seemingly vaporized in front of my own eyes! Thanks, Hollywood."
Kaufman has quite an interesting bio. He raced with Ferrara beginning in 1968 with a Stock sedan delivery followed by three years with the Motion Performance A/MP Camaro. He spent 1975 and 1976 with Scott Shafiroff, first with his SRD-built Vega and then a Don Hardy-fabbed Mustang II. They then built a B/Dragster for Comp, which won Best Engineered Car at the 1976 Winternationals, but the car crashed heavily later that year in Englishtown, so they finished the year with the Mustang, with which they won Le Grandnational and were runner-up in Indy and Columbus. He rejoined Ferrara just in time for an amazing 1977 season in which they won the Gatornationals, SPORTSnationals, and World Finals and were runner-up at Le Grandnational with the well-pedigreed ex-Grumpy's Toy/Larson USA-1/Richie Zul Camaro pictured here, which they ran in B/EA. In 1978, he went to work with Bob Glidden -- just him, Etta, and Lady, the dog. "I get tired just thinking about it all," he said in reference to Glidden's penchant for long hours and hard work. "He could wear out a steel ball with a rubber hammer." Kaufman "escaped" (his word choice) Whiteland, Ind., and returned to New York, where he again worked with Shafiroff before getting married and starting a family.
Interesting e-mail from Billy Copeland, who frequented the Memphis events. You may have seen his mug on billboards or brochures after he was photographed in the stands one year holding up his license plate, which reads "GO FAST." Copeland collected more than 150 autographs -- those of Bob Glidden, Ed McCulloch, Jim Dunn, Don Prudhomme, Shirley Muldowney, John Force, Connie Kalitta, Angelle Sampey, Tim Richards, and Bob Frey, just to name a few -- on his two GO FAST and one NHRA license plates and recently had them and a sheet of uncut tickets, a shirt, several brochures, and other items, including the National DRAGSTER issue, professionally framed and matted (at a cost of more than $1,000!). Talk about the ultimate collectible.
It wasn't so much that info that caught my attention, though, as it was his sign-off: "Billy Copeland, Guinness Record Holder." Of course, I had to ask. (You know me.)
Turns out ol' Billy is in the Guinness World Records book as the driver (passenger?) of the fastest rocket-powered luge. On May 16, 2001, while filming a segment for the Ripley's Believe It or Not! show, Copeland hit a speed of 98.5 mph on his back. Shades of Capt. Jack McClure's rocket go-kart! Check out his Web site, www.fastlanerocketluge.com, and be sure to click on the video link.
This week's Pure Nostalgia column in National DRAGSTER features the continuation of a former DRAGSTER Insider favorite: The Misc. Files. We're up to the letter "O," which yielded some surprisingly good finds, such as Richard Ogg's Capt. Hook dragsters, Gary Omlin's wingless Sugarman Top Fueler, Gervase O’Neill's King Rat Camaro Funny Car, Englishman Alan O'Connor's Anglia gasser, Cotton Owens' Cotton Picker (a mid-engine Dodge Dart station wagon), Butch Osmon's Top Alcohol Dragster, Tom Owens' Plymouth Arrow Pro Stocker, Ed O'Brien's Qu Voe Charger, and Pete Ogden in Romeo Palamides' canopy-equipped dragster, The Romeo. Good times.
OK, that's it for now. I'll be back quicker next time.
I received a lot of great feedback from Friday's column about Connie Kalitta's wreck at the 1971 U.S. Nationals in Robert "Poncho" Rendon's wedge Top Fueler. Despite some effort, I was not able to talk to Kalitta about it, but I did receive a ton of great information from unexpected places. Actually, with the power and reach of this column, I guess I shouldn’t say "unexpected" anymore because you guys continue to amaze me with not only your willingness to contribute but also your resources.
One of the first people I heard from was my old buddy and photographer Tom Schiltz, who sent these photos of the wedge on what may have been its maiden (and only) voyage. I actually received the first two photos from a couple of folks, meaning that they're floating around cyberspace, but Schiltz, a longtime National DRAGSTER contributor, is actually the guy who shot them. The first one shows the car launching on the ill-fated pass – the only photo of the car I've seen in action – and the second shows what remains of the chassis and roll cage that carried Kalitta to a surprisingly safe stop given the severity of the accident.
Interestingly, Schiltz could have found himself in the middle of the maelstrom had it not been for Ron Rickman (who gained fame by being the guy hiding behind the scoreboard post as Kalitta's mount veered out of control).
"I finished shooting from the top end and was walking down the return road toward the starting line," relayed Schiltz. "I stopped to talk to Ron Rickman, and when they fired Top Fuel, he told me I had to move back to the return road, so I kept walking toward the line. I shot the launch and saw the car go over on its side, so I kept shooting and winding. I had no motor drive, so I wound as fast as I could. I was able to hitch a ride back to the top end and get the parts and pieces photos."
What's interesting about the second photo is that it shows stunned car owner Rendon at far right and our own Leslie Lovett, in his blue and yellow ND uniform, at left. Lovett's toting his ubiquitous Hasselblad, chronicling the mess for NHRA.
Schiltz also sent the third photo, which shows the remains of the car being trucked away. I'd say that car was never going to run again.
Unable to reach Kalitta, I was very pleased to hear from other credible sources, including then partner Shirley Muldowney and her son, John, who witnessed the accident, as well as Dennis Godsey, a crewmember for Kalitta during the event. It turns out that Kalitta was not the car's regularly scheduled driver -- the late Gene Domagalski was slated to drive.
Remembered Godsey, "On Thursday, we had both [Funny Cars] in line and were near the head when Connie spotted 'Poncho' and Gene Domagalski coming to the front of the Top Fuel qualifying line. They were talking, and Connie told 'Poncho' he could get the car in the show and proceeded to climb in (he had never driven a rear-motor car). My belief is that in a front-motor car, you can be 15 to 20 percent sideways and see where you are, and in a rear-motor car, [at] that same percentage, you have lost control, which happened."
According to John Muldowney, Kalitta lost control of the car because the Detroit locker rear end came unlocked after Kalitta pedaled through tire shake, and the left rear tire stopped driving, bringing the car around to the left. Muldowney had left his mom in the Funny Car staging lanes – she was not at the top end, as the film Heart Like a Wheel depicts -- and had ridden his minibike down to the top end to watch the fuelers run and had an excellent vantage point just past the finish line, almost across from where Kalitta's shattered mount eventually skidded to a stop.
Godsey also remembered buckling a battered and bruised Kalitta into his Funny Car the following day after the wreck. "He about passed out," said Godsey.
Although I haven't been able to find out whether the crash happened on the car's maiden voyage or if it had been tested locally at a venue such as Detroit Dragway, William McLauchlan said that the car was built on a Logghe chassis and that Al Bergler did the bodywork, including the wedge. (Don Prudhomme's wedge was a Buttera car, and Leland Kolb's was a Woody car, according to McLauchlan, who thinks that the famed Nye Frank built the body on both.)
I also was surprised to hear from Anthony Tierney, the nephew of the late Rendon, who included this photo of the wedge outside of someone's shop.
" 'Poncho' Rendon is actually my great uncle, but he raised me as his son," wrote Tierney. "In my eyes, he didn't receive a lot of credit for the things he did within the sport. I saw your post about Rickman, and I thought this would be a great chance to keep his spirit alive. He was a real unsung hero of the pioneer days in drag racing that lived for the sport.
"Perspective can be a strange thing," he added. "By the time I was born in 1987, my uncle had already spent at least twice my current 22 years of age making cars go fast. And even though by the late '70s, much of his career in racing had already been committed to the history books, I felt then as I do now that his contribution to the sport of drag racing could not be measured in trophies. Like so many racers before him, he hung in the sport that had yet to find its mainstream appeal by sheer grit and determination and often under tough circumstances. I’m not sure that the racers of today understand the bond that the racers of his era forged with one another. I’m also not sure if people understand the uncanny knack that he and the other racers had for taking nothing seriously but the racing itself. Back then, crews were fleshed out by diehard drag racing volunteers, and the lines of responsibility were blurred — drivers, crew, and owners alike pitched in equally to get the car to the next round. I figure that among them there was a shared unspoken knowledge that they were a part of something much bigger than themselves. I also figure it was an experience that they wouldn’t trade a moment of.
"You might be wondering how someone who only lived those early days in racing vicariously can give such a personal perspective. To begin, my uncle had a gift for telling a story that made pictures form in your head of people, places, and events. He could tell any story rich with detail and side-splitting humor. The years I spent attending events rounded out my perspective as well. I met so many of the people he talked about and saw many of the places and events that he attended year after year. More than anything, though, it was drag racing itself that gave me a love of the sport and an understanding of that time far beyond the point of view one of my age would normally have. I’d love for my uncle’s efforts to be recounted in the people he touched and the number of friends he made. When he died, he was eulogized by none other than Shirley Muldowney. If you ask her, she will tell you in an even more compelling way that he was not only instrumental in her career, but more importantly, a man who could be as fierce a competitor as he was a friend."
Tierney also directed me to a thread he'd started about his uncle on The H.A.M.B. message board, where I found this photo of the car. At first glance, it didn't look like Indy – there doesn’t appear to be a guardrail next to the car -- so maybe the car did get shaken down; on the other hand, the car is lettered with Kalitta's 339 permanent number (according to the WDIFL.com lists; he also had 399; Domagalski's number was 374), and that appears to be Kalitta in the car, based on the white helmet in the top photo. My bet is that this is Indy after all. (Which leads me to another question stuck in my mind: if Kalitta's was a spur-of-the-moment decision to drive the car, why does it carry his number? Did they stick it on in the lanes? If so, they did a mighty nice job. Hopefully I can get to Connie and get all of the answers.)
On a final side note, I mentioned with the Heart Like a Wheel clip that I showed here last week that "T.V. Tommy" Ivo and Kelly Brown were the stunt drivers for the film. Brown, the former NHRA Top Fuel champ, was driving the Kalitta car, and Ivo handled all of the work in Shirley's cars as well as the Don Garlits car in the crash clip.
"I was doing all of Shirley's car driving," said Ivo, pictured, left, with K.B. "I was the only one that could fit in her car. Of course, there was only a dummy in the [Kalitta] car when they crashed it. No, no, no -- I'm not calling Kelly a dummy --- it was a 'real' dummy in the car!!! <Ivo type grin>
"The first run I made with all these cameras on the car, it almost ran off the end of the track, it weighed so much. Running on alcohol, it was probably only running about 180, if that, but the car probably weighed twice as much. John Muldowney built all the mounts on the car for them."
According to Ivo, the wedge was attached to a tow cable that ran it and its dummy driver right into the guardrail from about 300 feet prior to the collision point.
OK, race fans, that's it for the day and, perhaps, the week. I'm traveling to Charlotte Thursday for the big four-wide bash. I missed the exhibition last September and didn't want to miss this deal in case it's the one and only time it happens. Between all of the hubbub there and travel, it may be next week before I have something new, but who knows …
Thanks again for your support and participation.
Sad news earlier this week sent by reader Craig Eagle, advertising accounting assistant at The Columbus Dispatch, pointing me to an online obituary for former NHRA event worker Ron Rickman. Rickman, who also worked at times as an official for the Ohio and National Tractor Pullers Associations and was an avid bass fisherman, died last Thursday at age 71.
You may not know the name, but if you've been around these woods for a while, you certainly will recognize the image at right, which shows Rickman getting ready to play dodgeball with Connie Kalitta's crashing Top Fueler at the 1971 U.S. Nationals.
This accident occurred during Thursday qualifying when Kalitta, running in the right lane, lost the handle on his new wedge dragster – a car that I believe was owned by the late Pancho Rendon and was similar to the Hot Wheels wedge of Don Prudhomme and another owned by Leland Kolb – and, as you can see at right, got it completely on its side as he crossed the centerline. He impacted the left guardrail and then the Marathon scoreboard/win light.
Rickman did not suffer any injuries, nor did Kalitta, shy of some pretty fair bruises, but as you can see in the third photo, the same can’t be said for the scoreboard. That's Rickman beside the mangled remains, checking out debris from the crash while the Safety Safari and ambulance crews tended to Kalitta in the background.
Longtime NHRA Competition Director Steve Gibbs remembered the incident well.
"[Rickman] was the guy who used to sit in a chair at the quarter-mile to spot debris on the track. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but after Kalitta nailed the scoreboard in the wedge car, it brought an end to that idea. When Jack Hart and I were helping to clean up the crash scene, we both thought we were going be picking up Ron in pieces and kind of panicked when we couldn’t find him for a while. A little later, I found him in the bottom of the finish-line tower drinking a Coke … not a scratch on him. He and wife Geri worked fuel check for a while but dropped off the NHRA tour quite a few years ago."
The other part of this story that's often forgotten is that Kalitta not only returned to action later in the event to qualify his Funny Car but also reached the semifinals. Shirley Muldowney also qualified but lost in round one to Henry Harrison, and Kalitta went on to beat Jake Johnston, then got a bye run when a broken clutch spring caused the Richard Tharp-driven Blue Max to lock up on the starting line. Kalitta lost in the semifinals to Ed McCulloch, who went on to score his first of six U.S. Nationals crowns.
I looked in our files and couldn’t find any photos of the Kalitta wedge at the event, and there may not have been many taken because the wreck occurred so early in qualifying. The best I can offer you is the clip below, from Heart Like a Wheel, the biopic on the life of Muldowney, which shows a re-creation of the car.
In my recent in-depth interview with Shirley for National DRAGSTER's Most Intriguing People edition, she took issue with a lot of the Hollywood-ization of her story, and I'm sure this fits right in. I couldn’t swear to it, but I'm guessing the late, great Steve Evans wasn't calling the action, and the wreck surely did not occur at Orange County Int’l Raceway, which is the stand-in for Indy here (though it's sure cool to see OCIR!). We do know that Kalitta sure wasn't running against Don Garlits when he crashed – it was Vern Anderson in Jim Nicoll's car in the other lane – and Kalitta's car never hit the right guardrail and disintegrated as such. I also doubt that Shirley just happened to be at the top end watching through binoculars.
Still, I think it’s pretty cool footage.
As mentioned earlier this week, the rear-engine cars were starting to come out in force following Garlits' wins at the Winternationals and Springnationals and the Summernationals win by Arnie Behling in Bruce Dodd's Spirit. Garlits qualified No. 1 at 6.21, miles ahead of No. 2 qualifier (and eventual winner against Garlits in the great burndown) Steve Carbone, who ran 6.39 in his slingshot; behind them were the back-motor cars of Kuhl & Olson (6.41) and Behling (6.46), but they were chased by the front-engine cars of world champ Ronnie Martin, Gerry Glenn (Schultz & Glenn), Butch Maas (Creitz-Donovan-Maas), and "Kansas John" Wiebe.
I don't have a full entry list at hand, but skimming the photos in ND's coverage, here's a pic below of Kolb's wedge; Prudhomme had a rear-engine car, too, but not the wedge he ran in Englishtown. In contrast to Kalitta's misfortunes, Kolb reached the third round (quarterfinals of the 32-car field) before losing to first alternate Gary Cochran.
Notes about the passing of former NHRA Funny Car champ Shirl Greer last week have dominated my Inbox, and there is some cool stuff worth sharing.
NHRA released a statement, lauding the former champ: "One of the true pioneers of Funny Car racing, Georgia native Shirl Greer will always be remembered as the first to win an NHRA Funny Car world championship title with the modern-day points format. He claimed his place atop the point standings with an incredible resolve and strong work ethic that led him to the title in 1974 over a handful of talented drivers, including Paul Smith, Don Prudhomme, and Frank Hall. He overcame great odds to win the championship that year, including a dramatic final weekend at Ontario Motor Speedway. After his car suffered a massive fire during qualifying, the entire Funny Car community pitched in to assist him in his quest to rebuild his car to race. Once the work off the track was completed, Greer went back to work on the track and held off Prudhomme, one of those who pitched in to help, for the title. Greer’s signature Chained Lightning Ford Mustang Funny Car will always be remembered as one of the most popular hot rods of all time. On behalf of the entire NHRA community, our heartfelt thoughts and prayers go out to Greer’s family and friends. He will be missed."
In a nice move, Bristol Dragway issued the following statement about Greer and included the above photo of him at its Legends Breakfast during last year's NHRA Thunder Valley Nationals: "There are examples out there of champions who, beyond talent, earned their way with grit and determination. Shirl Greer was one of those champions. The cars may be different than they were 30-plus years ago, but the elements it takes to win a championship are not, and he put those elements together. Shirl was a great friend to Bristol Dragway and always was there to lend a hand in helping promote drag racing. Whether it was through allowing us to put his Funny Car on display or to attend an event, Shirl loved the sport of drag racing. He will be missed, and our thoughts and prayers go out to the family of the 1974 NHRA Funny Car world champ."
I mentioned that I was writing a column for National DRAGSTER about the massive pit thrash that kept Greer in the hunt for the 1974 championship and that I had contacted some of the principals, including Paul Smith and Don Prudhomme – who were battling Greer for the title, yet each selflessly assisted him in his quest – and Gordie Bonin for their remembrances. Rich Hanna, son of veteran nitro and jet Funny Car racer Al (of Eastern Raider fame), dropped me the phone number for his dad, and I got some great additional info yesterday morning just before deadline to squeeze into the story.
Al Hanna helped Shirl Greer into his borrowed equipment.
Of the four I interviewed, Hanna definitely had the best memory of the thrash and filled in some great details as well as offered others that I just couldn’t bring myself to put into print out of respect for those with squeamish stomachs.
Hanna told me a couple of things that I never knew, including that Prudhomme insisted to skeptical NHRA officials that they let Greer run the patched-together flopper in eliminations after all of the work that had been put into it. I also never knew that NHRA officials had insisted that Greer make a checkout launch with the car Sunday morning prior to eliminations before beating Leroy Chadderton in the first round. Anyway, I'm really pleased with the way it came together and humbly propose that it's likely the most definitive piece ever constructed about one of the most memorable pit thrashes in our sport's history.
Longtime Insider reader Larry Peters also shared his Greer story, circa 1974. "A friend and myself went to U.S. 131 Dragway in Martin, Mich., for one of the usual Saturday night Funny Car match races, and while walking through the pit, we saw Shirl Greer unloading his car by himself," he wrote. "As we were watching, he asked if anybody had a pickup truck he could borrow for the evening. Apparently, his crew or helpers never showed up to the track. We said he could use ours. So we helped him that night, towing to the line and towing back from the top end. I even got the chance to help work on the car. It was a neat experience at the time. At the end of the night, he said all he had to give us was some beers and T-shirts. I still have that T-shirt [pictured], even though it's ready to fall apart. He was really nice, and it is sad to see he's gone. In 1996 at Indy, Bob Frey was doing the start of the NHRA Today show, and I was in the crowd as he walked by. They were taping the show, and I had this cool hat on, and as he walked by, he pointed at it. He then walked past several other people, and there stood Shirl Greer. I didn't know he was there until I got home that night and played the recorded tape back. Sure wish I had known he was standing there. It was the morning after Blaine Johnson died, and Steve Evans started the show. Hard to believe so many good people are gone now."
"As a professional drag racing photographer of note from the mid-1960s to early 1980s, Shirl Greer and I often found ourselves standing in the winner's circle on both sides of the camera lens," said Hall of Fame photographer Bob McClurg in a remembrance forwarded to me by Dave Wallace. "Shirl was a real gentleman and a class act. In the winter of 1975, after winning the much-publicized 1974 NHRA Winston Funny Car world championship, Shirl built an all-new Chained Lightning Mustang II Funny Car, which he debuted at the NHRA Winternationals, and he and I had made an appointment to photograph the car the week before the event for Kendall Oil and CARS Magazine. However, inclement weather prevented us from doing so, which meant photographing the car in the pits, which -- for many reasons -- would have been impossible. On the Saturday morning of the event, Shirl went to the NHRA and asked them if they would hold his spot in the pits while he loaded up the Funny Car on the back of that old Dodge Clinic transporter he used to have and drove around to the front of the L.A. Fairplex, where we photographed the car on the site where the Sheraton hotel now stands. Some might have called that preferential treatment, and in this day and age, that kind of request would have been absolutely impossible. But that just showed you the kind of respect that the newly crowned Funny Car champ had with the NHRA. I would also like to think that everyone involved that morning wanted to share in Shirl's good fortune and help him celebrate his onetime championship in any way that they possibly could."
Reader Mark Whitmer, responding to the ongoing discussion about Jeg Coughlin Sr. and Funny Cars, reported that the late Bob Durban of central Ohio was the first to achieve a national event victory for the Coughlin family when he drove Coughlin's injected Hemi Barracuda to the Comp title at the 1972 Gatornationals, beating Tom Trisch in the final. "Bob D. was a friend and high school classmate," Whitmer added. "He and his cousins, Ned and Neil Durban, had some success racing gas dragsters in the East, and at one time, Neil, with the help of Bob Sinister, held the national record for C/Gas with his '41 Willys." I went to our files and dug out this shot of the car in question, showing "the Kid" in action.
Mickey Bryant, who with Todd Hutcheson is writing a book called Don Garlits, R.E.D., which focuses on the year and a half surrounding Garlits' debut of his first rear-engine car -- covering the period between Garlits' March 8, 1970, accident through Sept. 7, 1971, the last race of Swamp Rat 14 – took note of my musings about Arnie Behling's contribution toward the acceptance of the rear-engine Top Fuel idea with his 1971 Summernationals win. "Even though in our new book we highlight all of what Garlits did in 1971, we do point out others were doing quite well in other rear-engine cars," he wrote. "Ironically, on the same weekend of Behling's win, Carl Olson, in the brand-new Kuhl & Olson rear-engine car, posted a stout 6.52 on its very first pass at Lions. Coast to coast, they were after 'Big.' "
Olson confirmed Bryant's information and told me that Woody Gilmore at Race Car Engineering built the car, whose construction began immediately after the team returned from the 1971 NHRA Springnationals in Dallas with the front-engine car that today is seen in the Cacklefest.
"The Lions debut was just the initial shakedown run with no paint, chrome, etc.," Olson said. "We did not compete that night. We first ran the car in competition several weeks later at OCIR. Our first NHRA national event participation with that car was at the 1971 NHRA Nationals in Indy, where we ran very well and were awarded Best Appearing Car."
I asked C.O. if there was a lot of opposition and naysayers about the switchover. "Quite to the contrary," he remembered. "I think most Top Fuel racers were convinced rear-engine was the way to go, but most were not in a position to make the change right away. Many had just ordered or taken delivery on new front-engine dragsters. There were a few front-engine 'hard cores' (John Wiebe and the Berry Brothers & Hughes come to mind), but most of our contemporaries were thinking rear-engine just as soon as time and resources would permit."
And, finally, in Tom Nagy's Fan Fotos from the Midwest, I mentioned the Bill Schifsky/Doc Halladay Cox Pinto. Kevin Cooley of Longmont, Colo., dropped me a line and these photos to show that the car is still around and running. It's now driven by Jon Reich and powered by an injected Chevy. Cooley captured the images at the Muscle Car Reunion at Kansas City Int'l Raceway last September. In the photo at right, you can see that the crew cleverly covers the injectors with a couple of the Cox toys when the car is in the pits.