By their very nature, lists are polarizing. Whether it’s the top 10, 20, 50, or 100 anything that you’re trying to establish, there are going to be hits and misses among the critics and delight and disappointment among those who made or didn’t make the list.
Al Segrini, a five-time NHRA national event Funny Car winner and three-time top-10 finisher, does not hide the disappointment of not seeing any of his Funny Cars – most notably the beautiful Black Magic Vega and any of his Faberge-sponsored Super Brut machines -- on the top-20 list released a few weeks ago, and we chatted about it earlier this week in an hour-plus phone conversation that only increased my appreciation for his career behind the wheel.
Segrini, recognized last year as grand marshal of the NHRA Motorsports Museum New England Hot Rod Reunion presented by AAA Insurance at New England Dragway for his accomplishments and his continuing fan support in the region, works these days as a project manager for a company that builds high-end homes, but for more than two decades, his home was behind the wheel of a Funny Car.
The Massachusetts native got his first flopper ride in the injected-nitro American Express Camaro fielded with his brother, Lou, in 1971. That car was preceded by a good-running B/Gas ’55 Chevy and an injected-fuel altered. Segrini had driven the Chevy, but his protective older brother thought the altered was too much car for his young sibling, so he initially hired Joe Fleming to drive it. After enough pestering, Segrini was allowed to drive the car and proved a natural, guiding the sometimes ill-handling ’23-T to strong performances and victories. Fleming got back into the cockpit one afternoon at New England Dragway and ended up crashing heavily and destroying the car. “We pretty much brought it home in a basket,” recalled a “peeved” Segrini.
Paul Wasilewski Jr.
Lou ordered the American Express car to be built and insisted that the chassis builder, Pete Tropiano, locate the cockpit off-center, toward the “driver’s side,” in a fashion similar to that of the successful Chi-Town Hustler. They took the injected-fuel 427 Chevy right out of the altered and joined Tom “Smoker” Smith’s circuit, running in the Southeast. The car was a winner from the start, and Segrini loved driving it. Compared to the altered, “it was like driving a limousine,” he recalled.
The brothers racked up a series of wins against their mostly Hemi-powered opponents but finally had enough of what they considered to be a constantly shifting set of rules and returned to New England Dragway, where track promoter Jack Doyle had a soft spot for them.
"All of the AA cars would run there — [Don] Schumacher, [Gene] Snow, [Don] Prudhomme, [Tom] McEwen – but Jack told us we could park off to the side, and if one of the AA cars breaks, we could jump in as an alternate. Lo and behold, it seems like we’d get into every show because those guys would do a burnout and break, so they’d push them off, we’d fire off, and I’d run against some AA car, and we did pretty good, too. After a while, some of those guys got pretty pissed off because our car always went down the track. One of them – I think it was Lew Arrington – refused to run against me. ‘That kid is going to make an ass out of me,’ he told Jack. ‘That car hauls ass straight down the track; I’ll look like a fool,’ but they told him to race me or go home. I think we ended up in three or four finals. We never won, but we gave them a race.”
The brothers hung out with the big guns and even ended up crewing for “Jungle Jim” Liberman on occasion. “I’d open oil cans, clean the oil pan, whatever he needed, and he’d let me sit in the car and steer it coming down the return road,” he remembered. “What a thrill; he was my hero.”
Familial obligations forced brother Lou to retire from racing in 1972, but Al’s reputation was already such that when fellow Massachusetts Funny Car driver Kosty Ivanoff got in a nasty crash at New England Dragway, he hired him to drive his supercharged Boston Shaker Vega while he recovered in 1973. It was during the 1973 season and regular racing trips to the Maryland area that Segrini met Jim Beattie, who owned ATI, a top name in automatic racing transmissions. Beattie, a big Funny Car fan, ultimately decided he wanted one of his own and put Segrini in charge of the project.
A Woody Gilmore car was ordered, and Segrini wisely chose Kenny Youngblood to dream up a paint scheme for the car, which was to be named Black Magic. Youngblood responded with one of his all-time great designs, a flowing trio of stripes – orange, red, and yellow – on a brilliant black background. Famed SoCal painter Tom Stratton applied the colors, and ‘Blood insisted on doing the lettering and airbrush work himself. The car also featured extensive chrome and polish and revolutionary faux-marble anodizing. “Oh my god,” Segrini still marvels today. “That car was beautiful.”
The car was named Best Appearing Car in its debut at the 1974 Gatornationals, where the team also collected Best Appearing Crew honors, an unprecedented feat in those times.
“Back then, it was the Dark Ages; everyone wore greasy T-shirts and shorts, but Jim and I designed uniform crew shirts, and everyone wore matching black Levi's,” he said. “Someone told me later that when we pulled up for our first qualifying run that the [NHRA officials] in the tower went to the glass to see it and that [NHRA founder] Wally Parks pointed to it and said, ‘That’s the future of drag racing there, guys.’ Before long, everyone had uniform shirts.”
Segrini drove the Black Magic for three years, but the biggest highlight came early, in the 1974 season, when they reached the final round of the Summernationals and pulled in to face none other than Liberman, who also was appearing in his first national event final round.
“Unbelievable,” mused Segrini. “I go from a kid hanging on the fences watching those AA cars run to racing my hero in the final round.”
That final round was one of the most memorable in the event’s long history. Segrini, fresh off an upset win over Prudhomme in the semifinals, smoked the tires while Liberman – in true fashion – carried the front end 3 feet high well past half-track before being forced to lift. Segrini gathered in his mount and beat him to the stripe, 6.83 to 7.14.
“I could see his front tires up in the air out my window,” Segrini recalled. “I wouldn’t lift, and he wouldn’t lift. I was smoking the tires trying to keep it straight, and he was in this big ol’ wheelie that I couldn’t believe. We ended up beating him, and I remember seeing him on the return road with his head down. It was emotional for me because he was my hero, but he told me, ‘Good job, kid,’ but he won [the Summernationals] the next year, so I was happy to see that.”
Beattie brought a second car – the Black Stang, driven by Pee Wee Wallace – into the fold, but Segrini had misgivings about the way that Beattie had the car built. Offered a chance to drive the ill-handling car at a match race, Segrini refused. “First, I didn’t want to embarrass Pee Wee, and, second, that car was evil,” he said. “And that was the beginning of the end for me and Jim.”
In 1978, he began driving for Fred Castronovo and the Custom Body Enterprises team, in a beautiful H&H-built Arrow. “Driving that car was like owning a Rolex watch,” he marveled. “Everything fit perfect – the levers, the tinwork, the way the body clicked into place.” The pretty car was destroyed in a crazy crash at the 1979 Summernationals due to an ongoing problem with exhaust-valve heads that would break off and punch a hole in the piston, leading to a dieseling problem when the engine would not shut off.
The problem came to a head on its opening qualifying run. Segrini got the car stopped just past the lights, but the engine wouldn’t shut off. Oil coming out of the headers from the holed piston caught fire and set the entire car alight. Segrini finally had to bail out of the cockpit, and the car took off, idling down through the shutdown area before crashing headlong into the retaining rail at the top end. “The car pretty much committed suicide,” said Segrini.
The team rebuilt, but the entire operation was stolen overnight while parked outside the home of a friend in New Jersey in preparation for running in Englishtown the next day. The truck and Chaparral trailer were found at a nearby shipping dock, but everything inside the trailer – the car, every part, and even the cabinets – was gone and never seen again.
Once again rideless, Segrini got a lead on a high-ranking contact at cosmetics maker Faberge from a mechanic friend. “He was just a greasy old mechanic at a greasy old shop, but he told me that this kid who used to clean toilets for him at his gas station now was a big wheel at Faberge,” Segrini recalls. “I was pretty sure he was full of [baloney], but he picks up the phone and calls the guy and gets me a meeting with the head of sales, Steve Hainsworth. I bring a rendering to the meeting of what a car could look like, and tells me he’s going to show it to Craig Barrie, who was in charge of marketing. Craig’s father, George, was CEO, and his brother, Richard, was the president.”
Segrini traveled to New York – his first trip into the Big Apple – and to the massive Burlington House skyscraper on Avenue of the Americas, where Faberge, then the top fragrance maker in the country with spokespersons such as Joe Namath and Farrah Fawcett, occupied two full floors of Andy Warhol-decorated offices. Craig Barrie, as it turns out, is not some stodgy executive but a young guy with long hair and gold chains who is a big fan of racing. He’s all for the idea and carries it up the chain of command. Segrini’s asking price is $125,000, not a small sum then. After several meetings over many weeks, a deal is struck, but the contract is for just $100,000. But as Segrini is walking out after signing the 40-page, legalese-filled contract, Craig walks up to him and hands him an envelope. Inside is $25,000.
“I didn’t even own a spark plug at the time, so I had to get going pretty quick,” he said. “Fortunately for me, Tom Prock and Pancho Rendon had just split up, and Pancho leased me their old car [the Gratiot Auto Supply Arrow], motors, parts, and a trailer. I took it to [Bob] Gerdes [at Circus Custom Paint], who painted it that dark green. We debuted it at Gainesville [in 1980], where Faberge guests on hand were impressed that the fans knew who they were.”
Segrini, left, Craig Barrie, and their beautiful Faberge 18-wheeler
After a successful 1980, in which Segrini also appeared at regional sales meetings, the deal was renewed for 1981, with Barrie, who also liked to work on the car, leading the way. This contract was worth $225,000. Barrie also took note of the 18-wheelers that were becoming more popular and decided that what was essentially a traveling billboard for about the cost of a billboard in Times Square was a good investment and commissioned Segrini to get them one.
Segrini and Faberge finally enjoyed the sweet smell of national event success at the 1982 Winternationals with the Super Brut Omni, winning a final-round battle of the fragrances against Raymond Beadle’s English Leather-backed Blue Max. It was the first of three Winternationals wins in four years for Segrini, two of which ended in spectacular fashion.
Segrini went to two more finals in 1982 – losing to Frank Hawley in both, at the Springnationals and Cajun Nationals, and finishing a career-high sixth in points -- but, surprisingly, did not qualify for the 1983 Winternationals yet went on to win the Cajun Nationals later that year with his new Trans Am after Steve Plueger worked on the chassis. He again finished sixth in points.
Segrini chalked up his third win and second in Pomona when he beat Tim Grose in a memorable final round in 1984. The camshaft snapped right in the lights, leading to a massive blower explosion that blew out the windshield and damaged the body. The win was bittersweet for Segrini.
“At breakfast that morning, I had been told that the Faberge deal was over,” he said. “There had been a corporate takeover, and George Barrie only had 49 percent of the stock. Talk about a high and low all on the same day. We finished the year with Faberge on the car, but the deal was over.”
Segrini’s reputation as a solid driver earned him a chance to win the Winternationals again the next year. Joe Pisano had just finished development of his new engine block, the JP-1, and asked Segrini, who was like family and usually stayed at the house of “Papa Joe” on his West Coast trips, to drive his new Daytona. They won the race, and again Segrini was spectacular in victory. You know the old saying, “If you can’t win at least be spectacular”? Segrini did both for the second straight year as the clutch let go in the lights, sending a shower of sparks out of both side windows as he crossed the finish line ahead of Dale Pulde.
“He was running just a three-disc clutch at the time, so we were feeding it parts after every round,” recalled Segrini. “As we went to push the car away from the trailer for the final, it wouldn’t roll backwards, just forward. I knew something was wrong, but I knew I had to give it a shot. After the burnout, it wouldn’t go into reverse. It was vibrating real bad. I held the brake and whacked the throttle and went into reverse and had to do the same thing to get it back out of reverse. The car went about two car lengths before the clutch welded itself, and it was like a lockup clutch before we had those. It opened four car lengths on Pulde. About 1,000 feet, it was shaking and rattling, and just as I lifted, [the clutch] came apart. The sparks were from the titanium can, which held up fine, but I couldn’t see anything, and I had my left leg tucked back as far as I could and my right foot in the top hook of the throttle just in case it came apart. It was spectacular, but we won.”
Segrini drove a few more races for Pisano that year with no real success, and despite his best efforts, Segrini was not able to put together another ride. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that he resurfaced, this time in the dragster of former Top Fuel racer Billy Lynch. The Swindahl-built car had the best of everything, except luck, and after two seasons, they parted company.
Segrini, right, with longtime friend and nitro racer Paul Smith at last year's NHRA New England Nationals. In 1974, Smith finished second in the world championship race; Segrini was sixth in the Black Magic car.
Segrini’s last ride was for his old pal Plueger, in Sonoma in 1997. His sharp driving got them into the Funny Car field, but they lost in round one. Almost 20 years later, he still maintains a presence in the sport. In addition to serving as the grand marshal at last year’s New England Hot Rod Reunion, Segrini took part this year in a panel discussion at the Winternationals, and he helps his buddy Mike Hard, who has the Hard Guys Nostalgia Funny Car that Mike Smith drives.
“I had some good moments in my career, and I think I brought a lot of stuff to the sport, like the uniforms and the sponsorship of a major company like Faberge,” he reflected. “When I look back at the Top 50 [Drivers] list [from 2000], I think I could have been on that list, too. Me and Dale Pulde -- who I think is one of the greatest drivers ever -- both. I was glad to see Dale had a car in that [Funny Car] top 20 because he deserves it, and it kind of hurts my feelings that none of my cars were. I think I did a pretty good job of representing NHRA, and some of the stuff I did, I feel like I was way ahead of my time, but I know it’s not personal, just puzzling.”
As I said in opening this column, lists are a tricky thing. There are probably 50 cars for which I could make an argument for inclusion on that top-20 list, and even though 20 was all I got, it’s hearing stories like Segrini’s that make me want to make it a top-100 list.
Last week’s video collection of vintage Funny Car clips was met with glee by the Insider faithful, what with all of the vintage fiberglass and dry hops, but it was the clip of the Mickey Thompson/Danny Ongais Mustang that drew the most oohs and aahs, not just for its fine camera work and sound bites from Ongais but for the car itself, surely one of the fabled cars in class history.
As we know, this car, built by John Buttera and Pat Foster with one of the first dragster-style chassis to ever see life beneath a Funny Car body, was powered by a 427 Ford SOHC engine tuned by “Famous Amos” Satterlee and won two of NHRA’s four national events in 1969, the NHRA Springnationals in Dallas (where Tom "the Mongoose" McEwen shelled a rear end on the starting line in the final) and the Nationals in Indy (where Richard Siroonian wasted a great 7.24 performance in “Big John” Mazmanian's candy-apple 'Cuda with a final-round red-light), and had there been a points-based championship back then, they undoubtedly would have won it.
From left, crew chief Amos Satterlee, driver Danny Ongais, chassis builder John Buttera, and team owner Mickey Thompson enjoy the spoils of victory after winning Funny Car at the 1969 March Meet.
Ongais also wheeled the car to victory at the famed March Meet, again beating Mazmanian’s flopper in the final round and setting low e.t. at 7.56.
As I mentioned last week, the video is so cool in many ways. Opined Insider regular Robert Neilsen, “This particular video is one of my favorites. I love to see these cars running down the track and bouncing around from the top-end shots. This video demonstrates exactly how unruly the cars of this period were to drive. They were similar to the fuel altereds of that same time period as they were apt to go anywhere but straight.”
And therein Thompson’s team saw a problem that they tried to fix by adding airfoils to the top of the car, as you can see below. They tried it mounted on the roof and, just before the Bristol event, with another mounted on the hood. The first photo is from the National Dragster archives and the second was sent to me by “Flyin’ Phil” Elliott.
In the photo below, also from the National Dragster archives, you can plainly see the holes in the hood after the wing was removed, in part at the insistence of tech officials, who noted the body couldn’t be lifted in case of emergency, and partially because it provided too much downforce and was causing the engine to burn pistons.
So what happened to the fabled blue pony car? I’m glad you asked because it’s an interesting story unto itself.
According to Insider reader Lee Oilund, the blue Mustang was heavily damaged in a postseason crash during a testing session on an airport runway in California with Team MT driver Arnie Behling at the controls. Oilund says his info on this — previously unknown to me and some of my drag-history-geek friends — came directly from Satterlee, who said the whole mess was hushed up due to the car’s notoriety and the fact that Ford, which was still sponsoring them at the time, might not have been too keen on the location of their impromptu test.
Oilund may be one of the foremost experts on the car, having done his homework to an A-plus degree by interviewing not only Satterlee and former MT drivers Dale Pulde and Foster but also Thompson’s sister Colleen, son Danny, and daughter Lyndy and by poring over the pages of magazines from the ‘60s and '70s.
So what’s Oilund’s stake in all of this? Why does he care so much?
Well, it turns out that he got the chance to buy what he thought was the fabled blue car (plus the body of the Pulde-driven Revellaser ’72 Pinto) from a fellow Canadian, who had previously bought the cars from Thompson. The first buyer had documentation stating such and even photos of the cars coming across the Canadian border at Bonner's Ferry, Idaho, so Oilund bought them.
It wasn’t until much research and investigative sanding that he says that he found out that what he really owned was the white Mickey Thompson Mustang, driven in 1970 by Johnny Wright. Although it was painted blue when Oilund got it, the sanding revealed other colors, including yellow (run in preseason testing) and the 1970 white, and a subsequent gold and red scheme covered by blue, all above the primer coat. Perhaps most telling was that the body had ’69 Mustang side-marker lights and not the ’68 Cougar lights that had been on the original body. The body was also missing evidence of the above-mentioned hood holes and had been stretched 6 inches with an insert just ahead of the windshield.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that, according to Oilund, the ’70 Mustang was actually a bit of a Frankenstein, composed of components from both the wrecked blue car and Foster’s semi-twin red car, which was destroyed in a nasty two-car crash at the 1969 Springnationals that claimed the life of Gerry Schwartz. (I say “semi-twin” because Foster’s car was built on a 123-inch wheelbase and Ongais’ on a 116-inch frame.)
(The 1970 car also was used as a test bed for Thompson’s “oxygen” car, which used compressed air in place of a supercharger, an experiment which looked good on the dyno but basically went nowhere on the track, as was the case with a subsequent experiment by Gene Snow.)
Here’s a great 1970 Team Mickey photo. Flanking Thompson, center, are, from left, Behling, Wright, Ongais, and Butch Leal. The missing driver is “Mighty Mike” Van Sant. The cars, from front to back, are Ongais’ Mustang; Behling’s 429-powered, Alan Gillis-wrenched Maverick; the Mustangs of Wright and Van Sant; and Leal’s Mustang Pro Stocker.
The Pinto body that Oilund has is definitely from the Revellaser car (shown here in a publicity photo), as confirmed by Pulde, who told Oilund that the previous three versions of the jinxed Pinto had been destroyed in crashes. The surviving body was not run long as it was replaced at the end of the 1972 season by Thompson’s Revelleader Grand Am, which debuted under Pulde’s control at Lions’ Last Drag Race in December.
As to the famed titanium frame that once sat beneath the Pintos, according to Pulde it was broken beyond reasonable repair while racing in Calgary, Alta., and, to Oilund’s knowledge, is still hanging in the rafters of the shop of the unnamed Calgary-area gentleman who bought it, fixed it, broke it again, and refuses to part with it.
In the meantime, Oilund has raced the Pinto body, sliding a period-correct Dixon chassis beneath it and powering it with an alky-burning 350 Chevy just for fun. The Mustang chassis was too old to be recertified and raced and, honestly, too much a bit of history to race.
Thanks to Lee for sharing his story and filling in some missing pieces of the puzzle of one of the sport’s greatest Funny Cars.
I’ve spent so much time already this year writing about cool old Funny Cars and sharing cool old photos of same, so maybe it’s time for a little video to give new fans a better taste of what we’re being all nitro-teared nostalgic about and to give those who lived it another look. Here’s what I found in a quick cruise through YouTube.
Mickey Thompson’s Danny Ongais-driven 1969 Mustang is one of the cars on our Top 20 list on which fans are voting (haven’t voted yet? Go here), and this five-and-a-half-minute video gives you a great look at what was a bad hot rod. Shot at the AHRA Springnationals at Bristol Dragway in Tennessee and other venues, you get a real thorough look at the machine, from the clear back window, taillights, scoops, and door handles that made it really look like a car to some cockpit detail shots, the wrinkle-wall M&H RaceMaster slicks on wheelie bars, and the 427 SOHC engine. The video also gives you a clear sense of what a handful these early Funny Cars were (I especially appreciated the wild moves the car made in the shutdown area at the one-minute mark). Includes shots of Ongais, a very passionate-about-something MT, and some great sounds.
This snippet from Diamond P’s Fabulous Floppers video, hosted by the late, great Steve Evans, has a fiberglass forest of vintage floppers as Evans, the master storyteller, talks about the class’ history (beginning at about the 1:20 mark), from its stocker roots through the altered-wheelbase cars. Great vintage video of some landmark cars, including Dick Landy’s Dodge, the Samson Dart, from Pomona and Fremont, the early Mercurys, the Chi-Town Hustler and Gene Snow’s Rambunctious (two more from our Top 20 list), Don Schumacher’s Stardust ‘Cuda, Gene Conway’s Destroyer Jeep, and more. Don Prudhomme and Kenny Bernstein also chime in with analysis of memorable mishaps, including body launches by Joe Winters, Paul Smith, Raymond Beadle, and Ron Correnti.
You’ll have to sit through a little bit of promotion and other classes to enjoy this one, but it’s worth it. It’s a promo video for Jim Amos' Bee On Video, Funny Car Fever, with footage from the 1972 SS&DI Funny Car Nationals at York U.S. 30. After tasty dry hops by Ed McCulloch's Revellution, you’ll see cars such as Kenny Warren’s Virginia Twister, Larry Fullerton’s Trojan Horse Mustang, Tom Hoover and the White Bear Dodge, “Jungle Jim" Liberman’s Camaro, Leroy Goldstein in the Candies & Hughes 'Cuda, Don Prudhomme’s white Hot Wheels 'Cuda, Frank Oglesby’s Quarter Horse Mustang, Warren Gunter’s Durachrome Bug, and Johnny Valdez’s Mexican Revolution Camaro.
A nice little clip from the 1970 AHRA Summer Nationals at New York National Speedway includes Jim Maybeck’s Screaming Eagle Camaro, the Prock & Howell Mustang, King & Marshall, and Leroy Goldstein and the Ramchargers. New York National, of course, is where Goldstein piloted the Ramchargers machine to the class’ first-six-second pass that same year.
Another short but interesting video from New Jersey’s Atco Dragway from what looks like about 1970, with Tom Sneeden in the Bob Banning Dodge Challenger, "Pee Wee" Wallace’s Virginian, Pete Hill in the Hill Brothers Barracuda, Bill Leavitt in his and Jim Nicoll’s Quickie Too Mustang, Bill Flynn’s Yankee Peddler Charger, and "Jungle Jim” Liberman’s red Camaro.
Byron Dragway was a popular match race date for Funny Cars in the mid-1970s, as this 1973 video shows. An all-star lineup (literally!) that includes Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen in their respective Carefree Gum 'Cuda and Duster entries, Ed McCulloch’s Revellution, Pat Foster in Barry Setzer’s Vega, Roland Leong’s Hawaiian, the Chi-Town Hustler, Shirley Muldowney, Don Schumacher’s Wonder Wagon 'Cuda, Mickey Thompson’s Revelleader Grand Am, the Blue Max Mustang, Jim Paoli, Mr. Norm’s Charger, the Pabst Blue Ribbon Charger, the Quickie Too, Billy Meyer’s Mustang, and the Jenner & Ron Hodgson Automatic radio car.
Finally is this clip from the great YouTube collection of Dwight Guild (written about in a previous Insider column), this one showcasing Don Prudhomme’s Army-backed Plymouth Horizon at Orange County Int’l Raceway in what was a pretty typical routine: long, wet burnout, back up, couple of dry hops to the line, then a hard squirt, back up, pour some VHT “glue” under the rear tires, a quick spin, another dry hop to the line, then the run itself. Compare that to today’s streamlined procedure of a wet burnout, back up, and stage, and you can see why flopper fans of the 1970s and 1980s think it was the greatest era for the class.
Our Top 20 Funny Cars list was released last Thursday – a day late due to some technical glitches – but my accompanying Insider column was a day early, so it all evened it. Voting began last Thursday and will continue through May 3, and I was thrilled (and quite relieved) that the 20 were well-received and that no glaring omissions were brought to my attention. All in all, I think we collectively nailed it.
Voting is racing along at a nitro-fueled pace, and I want to encourage anyone who hasn’t yet voted – especially folks like you who understand why these cars made the list – to weigh in with an informed vote to give the poll the most accurate results possible and reflect the importance of each car and not be just a popularity or social-media-influenced ballot.
On a side note, I had a couple of interesting conversations with two guys with cars on the list – Jack Beckman and Don Prudhomme – to get their thoughts about being included. I lobbed the question to Beckman in the media center last weekend in Las Vegas, where he was the low qualifier, and he was very enthused. “That was some cool stuff,” he said. “I have to tell you that I almost didn’t want to read [the list]. I mean, I’m an historian, and I would have understood if it didn’t make it because how do you get it down to 20? That’s a tough deal. And the fact there was 19 years between Force’s [1996 Firebird] making it and ours. That’s almost at the top of my drag racing list.”
Don Prudhomme's 1977 Arrow
I had texted “Snake” Wednesday to wish him a happy birthday (his 75th; hard to believe) and asked him about the list. Surprisingly, he hadn’t seen it, and when I told him he had three cars in the top 20, his response – good-naturedly, I assure you – was “Just three?” which led to a follow-up call yesterday to see if he agreed or disagreed with our list -- after all, he had raced against most of the cars on the list.
“Yeah, that’s a pretty cool list. I dig all those cars,” he said. “You know, the cars were so cool back in the ‘70s, with the dry hops and all that. They were a blast to drive. I mean, the driver was the computer, and you had to know your [stuff], y’know? Plus we all only had one car, not like today. I thought all of my cars were badass, and those three were really good ones for sure. I actually think the white Hot Wheels car, the one that John Buttera built, was better than that first one that [Ronnie] Scrima built because it ended up being copied by a lot of guys. It was more like a dragster, lightweight, with the headers over the framerails and the narrow chassis. It was a bad hombre; I still have that car. The  Arrow won me a world championship, too; I still have that car, too. The Skoal Bandit Pontiacs were pretty tough, too, especially the one that won Indy and the Big Bud shootout that year .”
I was pleasantly surprised – but not altogether shocked – that several readers took me up on my pre-list-release challenge to try to suss out the Top 20 list given some meager clues and, again, not too surprised that their accuracy level was pretty good.
Mark Elms wrote, “Last week I started a spreadsheet and typed in Buick, Mercury, Plymouth, etc., by your numbers that were involved. Then the three Prudhomme and two Bernstein floppers; hey, I am batting 1.000 at this point.
"I made a column for 'Absolutely' and a column for 'Maybe' (which by the way had very few cars in it). I aced the ‘60s and ‘70s. I didn't have the Hawaiian with Jim White as driver (so many Hawaiian floppers. I thought Mike Dunn was better, but the driver I would have chosen would have been Ron Colson, the man that drove the longest for Roland). I would have put Ashley Force in ahead of White and the Hawaiian. Now, McEwen, voted the top NHRA moment for winning the ’78 Nationals in his Corvette. Another thing about McEwen -- if you put the Snake Hot Wheels 'Cuda, you have to include his Duster; after all, he was the businessman behind hooking himself and ‘Snake’ up with Hot Wheels. But I'm not disappointed. Dale Pulde's War Eagle Trans Am was the one car I had on my 'Maybe' list. I figured ‘240 Gordie’ and his Bubble Up Trans Am would have been there on performance alone. But I'm not disappointed. The only other little blurbs between the final list and my final list was that I had ‘Jungle Jim’ in his ‘75 Vega or ‘76 Monza, but I had ‘Jungle’ in there. I also had Beadle in there, but in the ‘79 Arrow. I figured if a Blue Max was on the list, it would have been Richard Tharp. I had them all in one way or another except for the Hawaiian. Great list; now to sort them out.”
Dave Wesolowski got Nicholson, Ongais, Snow, Goldstein, Liberman (right car, wrong year), Pulde, Force, both Bernstein cars, and one of the three Prudhomme cars (missing the 1970 and 1982 cars by going with 1974 and 1978). His misses were all memorable cars -- Tommy Grove’s ’67 Mustang, Doug Thorley’s Corvair, the 1970 Hawaiian, ‘71 Candies & Hughes 'Cuda, Bonin’s Bubble Up Pontiac, the Blue Max EXP, the ’82 Chi-Town Hustler, and Chuck Etchells’ four-second-barrier-breaking Daytona.
Tom “Fasthair” Scott submitted his complete list (ranked, to boot) and got off to a fine launch through the first five – at which point he interjected, “Crap; this is harder than I thought it was going to be” – then started dropping cylinders by guessing that my much-expressed affection for the Mickey Thompson Grand Am would have landed it a spot in the show, but, alas, it did not. The car certainly was a runner – witness Dale Pulde’s 6.16 national record in 1974 – but had a pretty patchy record otherwise.
Scott also had Don Schumacher’s ’73 Wonder Wagon, which was on one of my personal preliminary lists for its outside-the-box thinking but didn’t make the final cut (though it was in Lewis Bloom’s top 20), as well as Gas Ronda’s Mustang, Shirley Muldowney’s Satellite, the Candies & Hughes 'Cuda, the Sachs & Sons/Chrisman Comet, Arnie Beswick's GTO, and the L.A. Hooker.
Gary Crumine tried to guess the eight Mopars on the list and correctly picked the Chi-Town Hustler, Hawaiian, Gene Snow, Ed McCulloch, and Prudhomme/McEwen, without citing specific cars or years. He also had Dick Landy’s ’65 AWB Dodge and Mr. Norm's Charger and the Blue Max (I guess either the Arrow or the Horizon), all worthy names but not in the final field. He went for Ed Schartman over Don Nicholson but got Jack Chrisman among the Mercurys and the Blue Max as one of the Fords and “Jungle” as one of the Chevys.
Bob Fleischer thought the members of the list were "truly deserving" but had hoped to see one of the 1965 altered-wheelbase cars on it. “These cars are, as everyone knows, where the term ‘Funny Car’ came from,” he reasoned. “Technically, the class was named after them. Look at ‘Dyno Don's’ Comet: anything ‘Funny’ about it? Not really, it pretty much looks like a Comet -- no altered wheelbase, not skinnier than a standard Comet. I can't see why anyone would use the term 'Funny Car' for it. So I believe that one of the first Funny Cars, the ones responsible for naming the class, should be included, at least as a Very Honorable Mention.”
Eric Widmer really dug my description of the list as “the baddest and most influential Funny Cars of the last 50 years” but can’t see a list without the car that Prudhomme called “one badass Funny Car,” the black ’73 'Cuda, but agrees with the influence that the “Snake” and “Mongoose” Hot Wheels cars had on the world – including him.
“I remember when I was 12, 13, even 14 years old and loved Funny Cars,” he remembered. “I would talk to anyone who was willing to listen about them and always looked for ways to include Funny Cars in the conversation as I just was so influenced by the beauty and power. If those folks weren’t sure what I was talking about, I’d then ask if they’d ever heard of the ‘Mongoose’ and ‘Snake’ Funny Cars and dragsters. Much of the time, folks would answer in the affirmative. I wasn’t asking if anyone ever heard of Rambunctious or 'Dyno Don’ or Ramchargers or Ed ‘the Ace.’ It was simply 'Mongoose and Snake' or maybe ‘Big Daddy’ Don Garlits that folks seemed to be familiar with.
“There was an electrifying magic in the air when speaking about Funny Cars to those in the know and equally to those not familiar with Funny Cars. And to bring the point home, mentioning the ‘Mongoose’ and ‘Snake’ Funny Cars was just as instrumental in electrifying the magic in the air as the Funny Cars themselves. Of the 20 finalists, Don Prudhomme has three of them, KB has but two, and the rest of the group only one each. That alone makes Don Prudhomme’s cars the baddest of the bunch due to sheer quantity. I realize others have multiple cars that did not make the cut. Nevertheless, ‘Snake’ has several that did make the cut, so that speaks volumes. As far as influential, the duo of ‘Mongoose‘ and ‘Snake’ won the world over to Funny Cars. Maybe if there had been a Blue Max Mustang II and Orange Baron Monza Hot Wheels set, things could have been different.
“As for me, I wish there were a million Funny Cars as I just cannot get enough of ‘em!! And I’m grateful knowing there are tons of folks just like me who feel the same way.”
Only everyone who reads this column, Eric.