The top three: PuldeFriday, October 14, 2016

With the Top 20 Funny Cars list whittled down to just three – “Jungle Jim” Liberman’s '73 Vega, Dale Pulde’s '77 War Eagle Trans Am, and John Force’s '96 Castrol Firebird -- and the top two not to be announced for three weeks (drama-building period, I guess), I have the chance to take a look at the three finalists, beginning with Pulde.

Don’t read anything into me putting Pulde up to bat first; he was just the easiest guy to get ahold of. Force is no doubt in full “game-face” mode and unreachable as he prepares to head for Dallas this weekend (I’ll be right behind him), and, of course, “Jungle” is reachable only through a psychic medium (if you believe in that stuff), but I do plan on reaching out to his first lady, “Jungle Pam” Hardy, for her thoughts.

To be honest, a lot of people – Pulde included – are surprised that the War Eagle is in the final three, but in my mind, his presence is a testimony to the complete package that Pulde and partner Mike Hamby presented. As Insider reader Dave Ferrin opined, it was “the perfect Funny Car in looks, driver, and performance.”

NHRA's Lewis Bloom did this interview with Dale Pulde in May in Topeka, where he was honored as the event's 50 Years of Funny Car dignitary.

I think that, despite the list’s intention to delineate specific cars, people also voted for the drivers, probably in part because many of the drivers who are represented on the list had numerous cars that could have made the list. Why “Jungle’s” ’73 Vega and not the ’75 car that won the Summernationals or the ’70 Camaro that ran 120 dates that season or his early Chevy IIs? Why not Pulde’s wild Buick Regal or any of Force’s Mustangs?

So let’s begin by taking a look at some of Pulde’s career “bonafides.” For starters, I’ve heard and read many times that people think Pulde is the most gifted and natural Funny Car driver the sport has ever seen, which is saying something when you stack him up against guys like Force and Don Prudhomme and countless others. He certainly has the experience, having driven, by his accounting, roughly 70 floppers, from Charlie Wilson’s Camaro in 1968 through the War Eagle nostalgia Funny Car. He earned nine top-10 NHRA finishes (including a career-high third in 1985) and six NHRA national event wins, and with three championships, 20 victories, and 15 runner-ups, he’s still the winningest driver in IHRA history, and he’s a member of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

Of course, not all of these were with the ’77 Trans Am in question, though he did win the 1978 Gatornationals with a very similar car. His next NHRA win after that was with the War Eagle Challenger (perhaps his least attractive car, IMO; sorry, Dale) at the 1980 Winternationals, but that first War Eagle still resonates and no doubt cast favorable light on every one that followed.

Asked to put a finger on the car’s popularity, Pulde notes that the car was one of the few at that time that not only was devoid of corporate backing but also had a catchy name.

Think about it: Prudhomme was already saluting the red, white, and blue colors of the U.S. Army, Billy Meyer’s Camaro was motivated by his father’s SMI company, “240 Gordie” Bonin’s Trans Am was bubbling up green and white, the Blue Max was emblazoned with corporate backing from NAPA Regal Ride Shocks and English Leather, and even the Hawaiian name on Roland Leong’s car was sharing billboard space with Power Gloss and Avanti antennas. Other than holdout old-school rebels like the Chi-Town Hustler and L.A. Hooker and a few others (Eastern Raider, Boston Shaker, et al), if there wasn’t a corporate name on the car, it was probably emblazoned with the owner’s name(s). So the War Eagle stood out, and an eye-catching paint scheme didn’t hurt.

Legendary SoCal paintsmith Bill Carter shot the colors onto those early War Eagles (John Pugh did the paint on the Miller Warrior cars that followed), with every version getting nicer and the Indian/eagle graphic on the hood getting more intricate, first with Pugh and then Glen Weisgerber doing the handiwork.

The choice of the War Eagle name was part plan, part serendipity. Pulde was floating from car to car after leaving the longtime employ of Mickey Thompson at the end of the 1974 season before hooking up with Hamby. “We knew we needed a name like Blue Max or something like that, something catchy,” Pulde remembers. “Mike went to the library one night and came home with a list of possible names. I was watching a cowboy movie when he strolled back in, and the Indian guy in the movie was badass, so we liked War Eagle right away. I called Steve Evans and some track operators and asked what they thought, and they all thought it was catchy. Kenny Youngblood had already done up a rendering for me for one of Joe Mundet’s cars, and we liked those colors, so we used that as our guideline.

“Everything on the car was anodized – and even before we had anodizing, we always had everything polished –and we didn’t rope off our area from the fans and got along with everybody. I wanted a car that would run good, so I told Mike we wouldn’t take it on the road until we could do that and not hurt parts. And we were able to do that. That first year was great. We hurt so few parts that [Joe] Pisano called me after we set the [national speed] record in Martin [Mich., in August, at 245.23 mph] and said, ‘Hey, I thought we were pals,’ because we were burning so few pistons, we weren’t ordering any from him, and he thought we were getting them from someone else. I told him I still had 10 of the spare 20 I had taken on the road. The car ran good – even though it had a little fuel pump and stock stroke, it ran 240s like nothing – and didn’t hurt anything. I think all of that made a difference in people's minds.

“I’m very surprised, humbled, and honored to even be in the top 20, let alone the top three,” Pulde said, then added with a smile, and a nod to Liberman’s famed backup help, “and maybe if Hamby had [been a little better looking] I might have gotten even more votes.”

Bill McLauchlan was one of many who threw their support behind Don Prudhomme’s Army Monza as the No. 1 pick in the list. “That car dominated two seasons of every type of racing, from national events, match races, highly regarded open events, etc.,” he testified. “I grew up at Al Bergler’s shop in Detroit and went to the races all the time. In 1976, Al ran the yellow Motown Shaker Mustang, and it was a pretty good car, but almost every race we went to had Prudhomme and that Monza there, and it became a race for second place for everyone else. No one had to say it; they just knew. Or they had another line: ‘I almost beat Prudhomme.’ That, to me, tells everything. The car looked cool AND was always a tenth better than the field. It was not my favorite of all time, but it was the best and was easily No. 1 to me.

Ted Pappacena

“Being originally from Detroit, the Seaton’s Shaker Corvair, Pete Seaton and Terry Hedrick, was my favorite car. They rented the back corner of Al’s shop and took me to my first Funny Car race at Detroit Dragway on a Tuesday night in 1968 and won the eight-car show. I was an eighth-grader, and it was awesome. The cool thing about this photo is that Terry was racing Dale Pulde in Charlie Wilson’s car. I used to cut through the industrial complex every day on the way home from school to see if anything interesting was at Al’s. One day, Charlie’s car is there, and I see this young guy working on it. I asked Al who the kid was, and he said, ‘Dale Pulde, and he’s the driver!’ Good stuff or what?”

Mark "Hog Wild" Elms, a true-blue Prudhomme fan right down to his  “Snake” tattoos, had the Army Monza No. 1, voting for performance and dominance over all else. “Who ran the first six? Goldstein and the Ramchargers," he explained. "Who ran the first five? Don Prudhomme in the Army Monza. Who ran the first four? Chuck Etchells in Topeka. Too bad Etchells' car wasn't picked in the top 20. Gene Snow dominated ‘70 in the NHRA and the AHRA and was world champion in both. No young voters would know that. Ed McCulloch dominated, first with the Whipple & McCulloch Duster and ‘Cuda and then in '72 with the Revellution Dart. The Ramchargers and Chi-Town Hustler cars were awesome tickets. The Setzer Vega was another short-lived but awesome performer. I believe sincerely that the Blue Max Mustang with Richard Tharp or one of Raymond Beadle's Arrows would have been better picks over the Mustang II.

“Force, ‘Jungle Jim,’ and a pretty car named War Eagle. I never met ’Jungle’ but have met Force and Pulde. Heck, I saw Pulde fight on the starting line at the March Meet. Seen [Tom] McEwen win the March Meet. Wanna talk pretty cars? Tom Hoover's 1973 Satellite, his first Showtime car, was gorgeous. Force gained my respect when he admitted a couple years ago on the air that he changed his burnout and staging routine. He was really ticked off at himself, said that you never, ever change your routine. ‘Jungle Jim’ fans are like a cult. I am sure he was awesome, but he won a national event in '75 and in '76 won the March Meet in his Monza. So as far as I can tell, the War Eagle will be third, and then it will be between Force and ‘Jungle Jim.’ “

Will John Force tower above the pack? Or will Pulde or "Jungle" swing in for the win?
Al Kean, another fervent Insider contributor, had Prudhomme’s ’70 'Cuda – “such a game changer with the big-buck sponsorship,” he notes – as his No. 1, but because it didn't win (it finished sixth and seventh, in the fan and Insider vote, respectively), he now predicts a Force-Liberman-Pulde 1-2-3 finish (and I’ll get into some of his comments in future columns); another Insider regular, Robert Nielsen, who cast his lot with the Mickey Thompson ’69 Mustang and driver Danny Ongais as his No. 1 choice (which finished a disappointing 15/9 among fans/Insiders), also predicts a Force win.

“As much as I like your choice of Prudhomme, Force has dominated the Funny Car class for an extremely long period of time,” Nielsen noted. “It would have been interesting to see a Force vs. Prudhomme match race, but they came from slightly different time periods. When Prudhomme was dominating, he did a majority of the driving and car setup. Force’s biggest asset, that made him a winner, was his ability to attract deep-pocket sponsors (cubic dollars always win) and put a good race team together. I am not sure how well Force would have done without the expertise of Austin Coil, though. Force’s energetic personality makes him a clear crowd favorite wherever he goes, as do his sponsors apparently. I would be very much surprised if he was not the fan vote’s No. 1 pick.”

Are they right about Force? Or will “Jungle’s” cult-like following (Kean’s words) swing him to No. 1? Or will the War Eagle fly above them both? Guess we’ll have to wait a few more weeks to see.

The top threeFriday, October 07, 2016

Last Sunday’s reveal of Don Prudhomme’s '75 Army Monza as the No. 4 Funny Car on the Top 20 fan-vote list whittles our list down to just three entries, with the No. 3 spot scheduled to be revealed Sunday of the NHRA Toyota Nationals in Las Vegas at the end of the month, giving us ample time to scrutinize the revelations so far.

For those of you keeping score, here are the three finalists, in date order:
“Jungle Jim” Liberman Vega (1973)
Dale Pulde War Eagle Trans Am (1977)
John Force Castrol Firebird (1995)

And here’s the comparison between the fan vote and the vote from the Insider Nation.

Car Fan vote Insider vote
Don Prudhomme '75 Army Monza 4 3
Raymond Beadle Blue Max ’75 Mustang II 5 5
Don Prudhomme Hot Wheels '70 Barracuda 6 7
Don Nicholson Eliminator '66 Comet 7 4
Chi-Town Hustler '69 Dodge Charger 8 2
Kenny Bernstein "Batmobile" Budweiser King '87 Buick 9 11
Jack Beckman Infinite Hero '15 Dodge Charger 10 20
Jim Dunn/Dunn & Reath '72 Barracuda 11 13
Ramchargers '70 Dodge Challenger 12 12
Pat Foster/Barry Setzer '72 Vega 13 8
Ed McCulloch Revellution '72 Demon 14 16
Danny Ongais/Mickey Thompson '69 Mustang 15 9
Kenny Bernstein Bud King '84 Tempo 16 14
Don Prudhomme Pepsi Challenger '82 Trans Am 17 19
Jim White/Hawaiian Punch '91 Dodge 18 18
Gene Snow Rambunctious '70 Challenger 19 15
Jack Chrisman '67 Comet 20 17

I’ll save you the list-to-list comparison (because I know you would have done it yourself) and note that the three unfilled Insider votes are the No. 1, No. 6, and No. 10 spots; in other words, only one of the fan-vote top three cracked your top three. Otherwise, there was a pretty good cross consensus of which cars belonged in the top 10.

Insider readers would rather have had the Mickey Thompson Mustang and Barry Setzer Vega in the top half of the field instead of Kenny Bernstein's "Batmobile" or Jack Beckman's Infinite Hero Dodge, but other than that, a lot of the sentiments are similar.

In the interest of full disclosure, the Army Monza was my No. 1 pick, so I was a bit disheartened to see it not even make the top two on either list. As a teenage pit rat, I saw this car in all of its dominating glory, and the numbers that it put up were astounding. Everyone knows the basics – 13 wins in 16 national events and two championships over the 1975-76 seasons – but those are just the headlines.

I wrote an article on the car’s dominating 1976 season for last year’s Readers Choice issue of NHRA National Dragster, and I scoured every 1976 issue to fill in all of the other nuances of its domination.

Prudhomme won the first five races of the 1976 season and reached the final round of the sixth, the U.S. Nationals, where he was upset by Gary Burgin, ending a run of 30 straight round-wins that stretched back to his victories at the final two events of 1975. Prudhomme recovered from that tough loss to again win the final two events of the season and finished with a stunning 30-1 national event win-loss record and his second of four straight championships.

He set low e.t. at all eight events in 1976, qualified No. 1 seven of eight times – Burgin stopped him from perfection there as well – had top speed of the meet six times, and reset the national e.t. record twice. Prudhomme also won three divisional events, which at the time were part of the points-scoring equation.

He won at match races from California to Pennsylvania and everywhere between, including Orange County Int’l Raceway’s prestigious Manufacturers Cup, York U.S. 30’s Super Stock Nationals, the Popular Hot Rodding Championships, the World Series of Drag Racing, and a score of other lesser meets. Counting match races, he set new track records at 19 facilities.

Yeah, that’s why he got my vote.

With a few weeks until the top-two reveal in Vegas, I’ll take a look at the top three and would most certainly love to read your input on each. What made these cars so memorable? Was it the driver? The win record? The look? Why are these three at the top of the list?

I’d also welcome any impressions of the rest of the list, either collectively or individually as it pertains to the rankings.

If you’re going to be in Las Vegas around the national event or planning to attend the SEMA Show, you for sure won’t want to miss the NHRA Breakfast there Wednesday morning, which will feature a panel discussion that includes Don Prudhomme, Tom McEwen, John Force, Del Worsham, and “Jungle Pam” Hardy. You can read more about that event here.

I’ll see you next week.

Key players from the Keystone StateFriday, September 30, 2016

Another week on the road, and another “retro” column from the Phil Burgess Archives to tide you over. When this column is published, I’ll be in Reading for the Dodge NHRA Nationals (Keystone Nationals for all you old-timers), and with Pennsylvania having such a wealth of drag racing history, it’s only appropriate to look back at some of the extreme talent that has come out of the Keystone State.

Of course, the state’s most famous racer remains Joe Amato. In addition to his five NHRA Top Fuel championships, the Old Forge, Pa.-based legend scored 52 victories in Top Fuel and five behind the wheel of an alcohol-fueled dragster before that. Amato competed in 99 final rounds in Top Fuel and won the Budweiser Shootout in Pomona a record six times. He finished in the top 10 an incredible 19 straight years, from 1982 through his sudden retirement at the end of the 2000 campaign due to ongoing vision problems after suffering a detached retina earlier in the year. Amato’s Top Fuelers, tuned by longtime crew chief Tim Richards, were the first to exceed 260 mph (1984) and 280 mph (1987). Amato's final victory as a driver came at the 2000 Keystone Nationals at his home track, Maple Grove Raceway, in front of a large number of friends and fans.

It goes without saying that the king of the jungle back then when it came to match race dates and popularity was the “Jungleman” himself, Jim Liberman. With his show-stopping performances and theatrics and gregariously open nature, he was John Force before John Force was John Force. Or maybe John Force is the latter-day “Jungle Jim.” Either way, there’s no disputing his popularity, or the transplanted Californian’s ties to Pennsylvania when he moved to West Chester, which lies about 25 miles west of Philadelphia.
“Jungle’s” digs in West Chester were actually made semi-famous by this seminal Steve Reyes photo showing his rig outside the two-story home, which was located on Route 202 between West Chester and Wilmington.
Earlier this year, Competition Plus’ Bobby Bennett drove by the residence that at one time was a gathering place for the quarter-mile elite and found it in extreme disrepair with ominous large X’s on the walls. The home has since been demolished.
If there was a rival to Liberman’s popularity and match race calendar on the East Coast, it was Bruce Larson, whose red, white, and blue USA-1 Chevys — such as this Camaro, shown at the 1972 Summernationals — were a staple from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s and eventually led to the 1989 NHRA Funny Car world championship (sadly though, not in USA-1 colors).
Liberman’s pal and longtime rival and foil on the East Coast scene was Lew Arrington and his monstrous and mean-looking Brutus Mustang, shown boiling the hides in Englishtown in 1972. Like Liberman, Arrington was originally based out of California but later became a resident of Pennsylvania. Although Arrington, who died in February 2008 of heart disease at age 69, raced through 1979, he drove other Funny Cars and, famously, the first rocket-powered Funny Car. The Mustang pictured here, the last of the Brutus line, burned to the ground in a nasty 1972 fire at New England Dragway.
The Lewis family’s long relationship with Maple Grove Raceway extends beyond the running of the track; brothers Mike and Kent also raced Top Fuel dragsters out of their Narvon, Pa., base in the 1970s, first with a front-engine car with Ed Crafton driving until a wreck in 1971 and then a rear-engine car — the first of the Sparkling Burgundy line — with a number of pilots, including Sarge Arciero, Fred Forkner, "Satch" Nottle, Dale Thierer, and Kerry Sweigart. They did a lot of winning of big local events, including Capitol Raceway’s Mr. USA Fuel Eliminator, and came within a round of winning the division title in 1973.

The aforementioned Arciero, of Broomall, Pa., had a long and colorful career, beginning with Funny Cars behind the wheel of Jim Fox’s Frantic Ford Mustang in 1970 and 1971 before switching to Top Fuel. After driving for the Lewis brothers through 1972 –- actually splitting cockpit time with Forkner –- Arciero got the ride for which he is best remembered, the Thomas-Lenhoff-Flurer Jade Grenade (pictured), which also later had drag racing journalist Jon Asher as a partner. In 1974, they stunned the troops at the U.S. Nationals by setting low e.t. of the meet in round one with a 6.01 to earn the coveted John Mulligan Memorial Low E.T. trophy from M&H. It was Arciero’s last ride in the car; Ron Attebury replaced him the following season. Attebury later was replaced by Ted Wolf and then by Don Roberts.

Fans attending this year's Maple Grove event will get to relive a little of the magic when Arciero is welcomed into the Maple Grove Walk of Fame, Mike Lewis drives a Sparkling Burgundy tribute car (the A/Fuel Dragster of Anthony Dicero), and Rich McPhillips converts his green A/FD to a Jade Grenade tribute car. That should be big-time fun!

Drag racing fans might remember Neil Mahr for the exquisite line of Superstars of Drag Racing calendars that he printed out of his Pennsylvania-based Mahr Printing and Superpress, but he also had a surprisingly competitive Top Fueler for a short period in the late 1970s and early 1980s. After running nothing faster than a Street Roadster in Comp, the fiercely competitive (and sometimes short-tempered) Mahr jumped into Top Fuel with a Don Garlits-built car that carried him into the five-second zone. He later opened one of the largest campgrounds in Michigan, next to Michigan Speedway, and, after retirement, established Villa Mahr, a vacation getaway in the Virgin Islands.

As mentioned, Thierer, of Whitehall, Pa., had a pretty good run in the Lewis brothers’ machine; he also had a quality ride for a few years with Jim and Alison Lee and pretty much bookended his driving career with the Hemi Hunter Chevy-powered dragster (pictured) of Jim Johnson, Gary Peters, Dan Rauch, and Wayne McCullough. Beginning in the late 1960s, he drove the original, which won the Division 1 championship in 1971, and about a decade ago was part of the car’s resurrection as a Nostalgia Top Fueler. Also as noted above, Walter “Satch” Nottle was another of the drivers for the Lewis brothers’ Sparkling Burgundy car; he also drove for Forkner (Division 1 champs in 1973) and was supposed to replace Ted Wolf in the Jade Grenade car but suffered a heart attack a few weeks before their 1975 season opener in Gainesville. Don Roberts ultimately took the seat and crashed the car on his first run. Nottle recovered and went on to drive Joe Siti’s Philadelphia Flyer in 1977; he was killed in a plane crash on his way to the Gatornationals in 1978.

Pittsburgh's Wolf drove a number of Top Fuel cars, including for Jim and Alison Lee, plus (as mentioned above) the Asher-Arciero-Flurer Jade Grenade and Jim Bucher's Chevy-powered rail, but this was his own car, the Wolf & Niemeyer Katz & Jammer Kids dragster. Perhaps Wolf's finest day was at the 1974 U.S. Nationals, where he reached the third round (when it took five rounds to beat a 32-car field; today, that would be a semifinal finish) in the Lees' machine, falling to Dwight Hughes, who then lost to eventual surprise winner "Marvin Who?" Graham.
Fox’s line of Frantic Ford entries was among the region’s most popular throughout the years as the Broomall, Pa., owner fielded a number of Mustangs from the late 1960s through the late 1970s with sponsorship from K&G Speed Associates. Ron Rivero, Arciero, and Roy Harris all drove the car, and the old-school Mustang was later replaced by a Mustang II. Fox partnered with Freddy Frey mid-decade and with driver Dodger Glenn and experienced great success on the match race trail as well as some success on the national event tour. In 1976, the team won the prestigious Dutch Classic, the Division 1 race in Englishtown, and the Funny Car Nationals at York and made it to the semifinals of the Summernationals. After the 1977 season, Fox and Frey sold the operation to Glenn, who was killed in the car in July 1978 at Maple Grove Raceway. Bobby Frey resurrected the famous name as a Nostalgia Funny Car a few years ago.
A Pennsylvanian by way of California, Mike Dunn made a name for himself in Funny Cars, following in the footsteps of his famous father, Jim. He first came to fame at the wheel of Roland Leong’s Hawaiian Punch Dodge in the early 1980s when he won the Golden Gate Nationals in 1981. In 1986, he began driving for legendary Joe Pisano in an Olds-bodied car that perpetually set top speed and made the class’ first 280-mph pass in 1987. Together they won the U.S. Nationals in 1986 and four other races through 1989. Dunn moved from Southern California to Mount Joy, Pa., in July 1990 and quickly partnered with Pennsylvania businessman Ed Abel on a Funny Car that was sponsored by Snickers candy bars and tuned by his father. They won almost immediately in Dallas, were runners-up in Topeka in 1990, and won three times in 1991. In 1992, Dunn moved to Top Fuel, driving for former baseball slugger Jack Clark, and ran 297 mph in Houston; they were the favorites to break the 200-mph barrier until Kenny Bernstein did it in Gainesville. In 1993, Dunn began a long association with Darrell Gwynn and crew chief Ken Veney that lasted through the 2001 season and produced 12 event wins.
“Rapid Roy” Harris, of Drexel Hill, Pa., was in on the ground floor of Funny Car, beginning with a wild altered-wheelbase Plymouth in the late 1960s, then drove the Frantic Ford for a few years and drove for “Jungle Jim” Liberman before running his own operation again beginning in the mid-1970s. With partner Tom Ryan, he broke some new sponsorship ground in 1979 with a Budweiser sponsorship (Kenny Bernstein’s famous Budweiser King machines began in 1980) on a quick Trans Am. He used Arrington’s old Brutus name on a number of his cars, including Arrows of the early to mid-1980s and a later Thunderbird.
The late D.A. Santucci, of Glenwillard, Pa., first came to national attention not just because of his surprising Top Gas win at the 1969 U.S. Nationals but because earlier at that event he had blacked out after a piece of chewing gum became lodged in his windpipe during a qualifying pass. After Top Gas went away, Santucci moved to the Funny Car class in the late 1970s with a string of solid-performing Black Magic cars — Vega, Omni, Mustang, Thunderbird, and Cutlass — through the early 1990s.
Nick Boninfante, of Upper Darby, Pa., began his career with gas dragsters and went on to become one of the East Coast’s steadiest Funny Car owners for three decades. He progressed into factory experimentals with an ex-Malcolm Durham Corvair, injected on fuel, then a short-lived Firebird that was lost to fire. In 1973, he began a long association with Pat Walsh on a series of 427 Chevy-powered U.S. Male Top Alcohol Funny Cars, including a Vega, Mustang II, Dodge Challenger, and Datsun Z car. In the mid-1980s, they made the leap to the nitro ranks, first with Walsh behind the wheel, then veteran R.C. Sherman, Richard Hartman (with whom he won the 1989 IHRA Funny Car championship), and others driving for him. He campaigned with the cars bearing that moniker until 1991, when he decided to concentrate on his business, Boninfante Performance Clutch Parts. We lost Nick a little more than a year ago, but his spirit lives on in his son Nicky, part of the defending world championship DHL team of Del Worsham.
Frank Kramberger stepped up from the alcohol ranks to nitro with a series of Philadelphia Flyer entries, including this Ford Probe, which he bought from the Candies & Hughes team in 1990.

OK, that’s it from the road. The pace slows a little from here on out, so I’ll be back next week with some new original stuff to share as we churn forward toward the end of the season and the final reveals in the Top 20 Funny Car list.

Missouri's finest fuelersFriday, September 23, 2016

The NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing Series heads this weekend to Gateway Motorsports Park, almost in the shadow of the famed Gateway Arch that is the symbol of St Louis. Although the racetrack actually is in Madison, Ill., NHRA markets the event — and racers almost exclusively refer to it — as “St. Louis,” so I thought I’d bring back a column I wrote a few years ago for the NHRA National Dragster website, My Favorite Fuelers, which features a double handful of fuel racers from the Show-Me State, Missouri. (This is where you say “OK, show me.”) OK, here you go.

Certainly one of the state’s biggest and most beloved adopted stars was Dickie Harrell, better known as “Mr. Chevrolet” for his dedication to and proficiency with Chevy-powered cars in the 1960s and early 1970s. Born in Phoenix, he moved to New Mexico, where he raced sprint cars and, after a three-year stint in the Army, drag cars — most successful at first in 427 Z-11 Camaros in Super Stock competition — and moved to Kansas City, Mo., in the late 1960s when his career really took off. Even though Chevy had abandoned its factory sponsorships in the mid-1960s, Harrell was Bowtie to the bone and carried on regardless and began building high-performance cars for Chicago dealership Nickey Chevrolet and, later, Yenko Chevrolet in Canonsburg, Pa., and Fred Gibb Chevrolet in LaHarpe, Ill., and he was in on the ground floor of the early Funny Car movement with Chevy II and Camaro entries. He was named AHRA Driver of the Year in 1969 while tuning and driving his fuel Funny Car and was named Driver of the Decade in 1970. Harrell was killed in a racing accident Sept. 12, 1971, in Toronto.

Louis Cangelose was a pioneer Top Fuel racer from Kansas City, Mo., in the late 1950s — he was A/Dragster runner-up to Don Garlits at the 1958 AHRA Nationals — and was a popular runner with his 392-powered dragster, which was dubbed The Missouri Mule. According to one story, he didn’t begin racing until age 42 and was killed a decade later, at an AHRA divisional event at Springfield Ozark Dragway in Missouri on June 27, 1965, the same tragic weekend that fellow racer Tex Randall was killed at Aquasco Speedway in Maryland. Cangelose died as the result of injuries suffered when his dragster went off the end of the track after the parachute ripped away during a 197-mph run.


A resident of Kansas City, Mo., by way of Sioux Falls, S.D., and Bellflower, Calif., Al Vander Woude and his line of Flying Dutchman Funny Cars were a force on the match race scene in the late 1960s. In California, he raced in Pure Stock, then was in on the ground floor of the Funny Car revolution as a pioneer in Factory Experimental before moving to Missouri in 1969. All of his cars were of his own design, and for the most part, he personally constructed or supervised the construction of his cars from the wheels up after learning all things mechanical as a U.S. Navy Seabee. After sitting out more than a decade, the Vander Woude and Flying Dutchman names returned to the dragstrip in the late 1980s with a car owned by his son, Don, and drivers Terry Haddock and Jack Wyatt. The elder Vander Woude died in 2001 at age 67.



The Kansas City, Mo.-based team of engine builder John Pusch and driver Don Cain was a standout in NHRA’s Top Gas class — winning five Division 5 championships and scoring three national event wins, including at the 1967 U.S. Nationals — until the class was dissolved at the end of the 1971 season. They switched to nitro Funny Car for 1972 and immediately found success with a new 392-powered Mustang, winning the Division 5 championship and finishing second in the Western Conference points in their first year of Funny Car racing in 1972. They later switched to a Satellite body. Cain got his first ride in a nitro car driving Rod Stuckey’s Top Fueler (1963-64) and Bob Sullivan’s Pandemonium (1965) before joining Pusch in 1966. Cain retired from competition after the 1974 season, and after his retirement from General Motors in 1988, he and his wife, Nan, opened K.C. Street Rod Parts in Kansas City.

The St. Louis-based team of driver Paul Radici and crew chief Dave Wise was one of the region’s most popular Funny Car outfits and a regular runner on the national event, match race, and Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars tours. Radici, nicknamed “Wrong Way” for his wild burnouts (or, according to another source, for missing the freeway off-ramp to Northern California’s Fremont Raceway six times in one morning), and Wise, owner of Wise Speed Shop, at one time held the NHRA eighth-mile record. The duo first teamed on a Firebird-bodied machine in 1969, followed by a Camaro and a very successful Vega. In the late 1970s, they helped popular Al Hofmann get his start in nitro Funny Car when they sold him their entire operation, including the Vega, which became Hofmann’s China Syndrome machine. Radici drove the car for Hofmann to help show him the ropes before handing over the wheel to “Big Al.”



Bill Daily, of Springfield, Ill., is best-known for his line of Pegasus entries but got his nitro racing start in 1977 in an ex-Tom Hoover Monza dubbed The Lone Ranger. A Plymouth Arrow — the first Pegasus — followed a few years later (at one point, he ran two Arrows, with Larry Brown driving a second entry), but his car was destroyed in a fire and replaced by a Corvette (the ex-Powers Steel entry) and then a Firenza and, later, a Top Fueler, driven by both Daily and John Davisson.



By all accounts, Joplin, Mo., racer Omar "the Tentmaker" Carrothers was a “unique” individual, but he raced hard with his Mustang in the early 1970s and frequented the West Coast, though he probably wished he hadn’t. A crash at Orange County Int'l Raceway destroyed his first car, a Barracuda, and a nasty fire at Lions Drag Strip’s Grand Premiere in 1972 heavily damaged a second car. He later teamed with fellow Joplin-based racer/owner Terry Ivey on a Charger-bodied machine.



St. Louis’ own Ira Hollensbe made a name for himself on the match race circuit with a string of Funny Cars (Barracuda, Mustang, Vega) dubbed Super Star. One of Hollensbe’s first cars was driven by Curt Wasson, a well-known Chevy racer and popular draw with his own 427-powered Superstitious Camaro who was between rides at the time. Hollensbe continued to race throughout 1976 and had two of his more memorable moments in Florida. In March 1975, he beat Jerry Gwynn at Desoto Memorial Speedway to earn the official-sounding title of Florida State Funny Car Champion. A year later, he suffered a bad fire on a qualifying run at the NHRA Gatornationals and retired shortly after. Wasson also continued to compete but was killed in a highway accident shortly after completing construction of a new Monza, dubbed Million Dollar Baby, which then was sold to Billy Graham.



Jim and Jerry Jokerst called their wild-looking '70 Camaro Mr. Sinister, an apt name for the brothers' wicked-looking Chevy. The St. Louis-based car was pure Chevy, down to its 427 powerplant, and was the third in a line of cars for the brothers; Jim always did the driving. After this car came a Vega named Snidely Whiplash that the brothers campaigned for several seasons. Don Zoellner bought this car and later the Vega from the brothers, who quit racing in 1976. Zoellner renamed the Vega Spirit of St. Louis and raced into the late 1970s.



Scott Palmer is today’s Missouri banner-carrier with his hard-running independent Top Fueler. He competed in Super Gas and then in Top Alcohol Funny Car for four seasons before moving to Top Fuel in 2002. He competed at NHRA events every season and has proven himself an adept marketer with a series of outside-the-box sponsorships. He’s also the owner of Scott Rods Custom Trucks & Cars, a paint and body shop in Nixa, Mo.


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