Funny Car Evolution: The Sophisticated 70s

July 20th, 2010

By Randy Fish

Photos by Gerdes/Circus Archive, Lou Hart, Speed Edge Design, the Tom McEwen Collection, Tom West, and Randy Fish

Courtesy Gerdes/Circus Archives

Part 2 of Drag Racer’s thrilltastic trip in the Funny Car Time Machine

By the early 1970s, Funny Car builders from coast to coast had taken cues from each other’s workmanship and began to standardize their approach to crafting the foundations for these ground-shaking, flip-top, crowd pleasers. We’ll pick up the torch where suspensions were no longer needed and where clutches took the place of over-worked (and over-exploded) automatic transmissions.

NHRA vs. the Match Traveling Circus

Little did we know (at the time) that these entertaining drag racers were actually a nitro-burning “traveling circus.” The only difference was they all went in different directions once the show was over. In 1974, there were only seven NHRA national events. The calendar included: The Winternationals, The Gatornationals, The Springnationals, Le Grand National, The Summernationals, The Nationals, and The World Finals.

The striking “Pepsi Challenger” carried Don “The Snake” Prudhomme on a memorable 5.637-second pass on September 4, 1982 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

Once the dust had settled in 1974, Shirl Greer of Warner Robbins, Georgia, was crowned Funny Car champion, following a terrible fire in qualifying and a heroic overnight rebuild (by friends and crew) that saw Greer drive with bandaged hands on race day. That made for an exciting story, and the bucks-down racer proved to be a popular champion, as everyone loves an underdog. Truth be told, the sport is peppered with amazing triumphs such as that.

Referring to one of the old Winston Drag Racing Media Guides, it had a category subtitled, “Milestone Professional Performances,” and the Funny Car section lists: 5.987, Don Prudhomme, October 12, 1975, Ontario, California. “The Snake” also appeared in that same section, thanks to a stellar 5.637 blast on September 4, 1982 at Indianapolis Raceway Park.

It would be impossible to count how many active Funny Cars there were nationwide, though the total would be “a bunch.” That said; most racers could travel as little or as much as they wanted for match race bookings. At the time, track promoters had different deals for different drivers. Some, like “The Snake” and “The Mongoo$e” received appearance money, as well as an escalating purse, that increased by the number of rounds won. Other racers may have attracted only the round money, but other incentives were also common, such as tow money and bonus bucks for wild burnouts or wheelstands. Every crafty promoter seemed to have his own package deal …

Years later, this became the Snake’s must-have support unit.

Master showman, “Jungle Jim” Liberman, became the first successful multi-car team owner, due to an incredible fan following. As the story goes, he’s said to have booked himself into multiple shows each weekend, only to appear at whatever match race paid the most. Jungle’s “Number Two Car” would show up at the second-highest paying show.

Innovation Reigned Supreme

As the Funny Car gained popularity, the craftsmanship improved, and the craftsmen began springing up from coast to coast. Southern California, the birth place of drag racing, had also become the hub for any type of expertise or service related to running a nitro car. Some of the players included Frank Huszar’s Race Car Specialties (Reseda), H&H Racecraft (Van Nuys), Woody Gilmore (Downey), Jaime Sarte´ (Van Nuys), Ken Cox (Paramount), M&S Welding (Irwindale), S&R Race Cars (Artesia), Roger McCracken (Placentia), Mike Kase (Torrance), John Buttera (Cerritos). Aside from these SoCal craftsmen, there was Don Hardy in Texas, Al Graeber (Pennsylvania), and Rollie Linblad, in Massachusetts, to name but a few.

Drag News was the race paper of choice for quarter-mile addicts nationwide, available in speed shops or by subscription.

At the time, renowned driver/fabricator, Pat Foster worked for Jim Hume at H&H Racecraft. From what we’ve learned, Foster was the first to build a narrow, “dragster-style” Funny Car chassis with the driver sitting in more of a lay-down position. We should all tip our hats in thanks, as the late Pat Foster’s foresight and fabrication skills contributed greatly to the evolution (and performance) of the modern day Funny Car.

Respected chassis master, Steve Plueger, began building Gasser frames for Chuck Finders, ultimately took over the shop and partnered with Richard Conklin, and thus S&R Race Cars was born. In the beginning, Plueger noted, “I didn’t much care for the early Funny Cars, because they were very crude.” However, his first venture with a flip-top “Fuel Coupe” came in 1969 after building a Corvette to campaign with Gary Densham. Then came a joint effort between Plueger and “Lil John” Lombardo, but from 1972 to 1975, the vaunted Plueger & Gyger Mustang became the winningest independent Funny Car on the West Coast. Steve also built most of Billy Meyer’s cars (the first in 1976), and served as John Force’s first paid crew chief from 1976 to 1979. Plueger also had a hand in the acquisition and construction of Meyer’s very first tractor trailer rig and he also built Force’s first tractor trailer, which served the up-and-coming driver for many years. Plueger is also credited with building all of John Force’s cars until around 2002, when the team expanded and numerous spares were needed, but the two remain very close to this day.

Billy Meyer and Donnie Couch had their chariot “stripped to the bones” in this late ‘70s Gatornationals photo.

The World According to Gerdes

When Funny Cars were appearing as fast as you could make Jiffy-Pop stove-top popcorn, a different kind of craftsman became the “Go-To Guy for many racers, though he was on the East Coast. He wasn’t a fabricator, though — he specialized in body work and wild colors, and his name is Bob Gerdes, proprietor of Circus Custom Paint in New Jersey. Granted, most every character associated with drag racing has broken the mold, in terms of personality and “schwerve,” if you will. Gerdes happens to be the master of it. He told us, “Most times we had eight Funny Car bodies in the shop and I’d have another five or six outside. The place was absolutely nuts. We were open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but it wasn’t about the money. I couldn’t buy that kind of fun!”

Now it’s a well-known fact that paint and body guys tend to stretch the truth when clients inquire about how their paint work is progressing. Gerdes mentioned, “(Chuck) Etchells used to tell people, ‘If Gerdes says it has two colors on it — that means it’s just in primer.’” On the flip side, “Jungle Jim” Liberman once told Gerdes, “If a guy comes in for a repair job and one of my cars is in the shop, fix his first. Take care of him.” How cool is that?

As the years went by, paint schemes for the Castronovo Brothers from Custom Body Enterprises in Utica, New York, became more and more involved. It was all in a day’s work at Circus Custom Paint.Over the years, Gerdes and Jungle became very close friends, and Circus painted nine or ten “Jungle Jim” Funny Cars. Other notable clients included Larry Fullerton, Al Segrini, Fred Castronovo (eight Custom Body cars), Barry Setzer (four cars), “Broadway Freddy” DeName, Frank Manzo, and Charlie Minnich, among countless others. The Barry Setzer projects are of particular interest, as Circus painted two red and two blue. Gerdes continued saying, “(Pat) Foster and I were sitting around drinking beer one night and he says, ‘(Don) Kirby can’t paint Candy Blue. Every time he paints Candy Blue, he screws it up. Let’s do the next Setzer car Candy Blue.’” And speaking of “Broadway Freddy,” he added, “I could write a whole chapter about Freddy.” Circus is one of those places where the party was as important as the work it became known for.

Circus Custom Paint was the busiest from 1974 to 1978, but shortly thereafter, Gerdes packed everything and moved to bucolic surroundings of Upstate New York, not far from the Vermont border and he remained there for 10 years. He moved back to central New Jersey (Farmingdale) for 12 years, and packed once again for Upstate New York, where Circus continues on a much less hectic pace.

Kenny Bernstein and Dale Armstrong kept pushing the envelope with regards to aerodynamics, as evident by this Buick Reatta photo. At the time, there were no rules against “aerodynamic enhancements.” Notice the size of the rear wing and the upswing on the rear deck, to better channel the airflow to the blade of the wing. This particular car went through numerous experiments and changes, and ultimately became known as “The Batmobile.”

Aerodynamics – Learning the Principles of Lift and Downforce

As speeds increased, the least understood area of Funny Car development began rearing its ugly head with much more frequency — namely, aerodynamics, or lack thereof. Years earlier, the Top Fuel guys continually mastered the use of air foils, canard wings, and various wind-management devices that helped keep their cars planted firmly to the track at speed. Granted, some of them paid the ultimate price along the way, but advancements were made on a steady basis and before long, it was unusual to see a Top Fuel car without some type of traction-enhancing wing.

Funny Cars, on the other hand, were veritable “bricks,” thanks to their full bodies. Tom McEwen was the first to go airborne on the high end as his rear-engined Barracuda instantly became a flying fish, when its high center of gravity and lack of spoilers caused it to lift at speed. Other drivers followed in his disturbed air, with disastrous results. The high-speed “Whoa Nellie” all too often became part and parcel to the Funny Car’s supreme show.

Later, certain fiberglass body shells immediately became labeled as “evil,” or ill-handling. Aside from the hood, roof, or side panels buckling severely under stress, some were just plain impossible to drive. One of those labeled as ill-handling was the late mid ‘70s Corvette, as its short rear deck provided little surface area for the air flow to push on. Tom “The Mongoo$e” McEwen’s first such entry was his blue-and-yellow ’77 Corvette and it showed its true colors with impromptu, attention-getting lane changes and other assorted handling woes. McEwen went to work and experimented with spoilers – short ones, taller ones, front-mounted and rear. Through it all, the car did show signs of improvement, though you can imagine what went through his mind every time he crossed half-track. Tom and his crew finally hit the jackpot when they installed spill plates on the sides of the rear wing. Those panels served to better manage the air rushing over the body and channel it past the rear-most surfaces, thus, increasing the rear downforce (and driveability) dramatically. You’d think crew chiefs had enough to figure out, and now they were expected to be aerodynamicists? These guys deserve more credit than anybody’s ever give them and it was all in the quest for Top Speed and Low E.T. of the Meet.

The U.S. Nationals celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1994 and it was a sight to behold. The place was packed with former racers, hot rods on display, and plenty of drag racing. It was a proud weekend for the entire NHRA staff.

“Lil John” Buttera was on the cutting edge of wind-cheating designs. Later, though, Dale Armstrong also thought out of the box. So far as to have rules made against his innovations. Thanks to Armstrong, Kenny Bernstein became the first Funny Car driver to eclipse 260 mph (Gainesville, FL 1984), and the first to 270.

Mechanical Innovation

With apologies upfront, our limited space forces us to tip-toe through the ever-changing advancements in engine technology. During most of the years covered in Part 1, Funny Cars were powered by junkyard Chrysler cylinder blocks, much like their Top Fuel brethren. But after Ed Donovan changed the world of nitro racing with the all-aluminum, Donovan 417 engine in 1971, Keith Black was soon to follow with the “late-model” 426 iteration, then came Milodon and later, Joe Pisano’s JP-1 blocks which also filled the frame rails. Those were water-cooled blocks with cast-aluminum, water-jacketed heads. The billet movement came into play during the ‘80s, and engine guys learned to save the planet’s most important natural resource, as water was unnecessary, since fuel provided the cool. In the pits, the talk among crew chiefs was no longer about “how fat,” or rich, the fuel mixture was – the issue became how much fuel volume you could successfully burn. Part of that equation dictated that ignition systems provide more jolt, such as when Billy Meyer ran trick heads with three spark plugs per cylinder. Of course, magneto output advanced, fuel pump capacity skyrocketed, and so did the amount of nozzles that distributed the magical elixir to the combustion chambers. In short, every system on these cars went through constant changes while our sport went from hobby and passion to business and livelihood.

Life Through the Windshield

Drag racing fans that witnessed the match race explosion may not have realized that every booked-in, nitro-fueled racer was actually a nomad who spent most of his days on the highways and byways, chasing their next booking, as well as the almighty buck. In order to keep the show on the road, racers counted on their haulers, a modest supply of spare parts, and some crew guys. We made a few calls to learn more about what it was like to keep everything together, and at the same time, keep the show moving across the United States of America, where the next race could be hours, days, or several states away.

Roland Leong told us he used to run 30 to 40 match race dates in the ‘70s and noted, “I didn’t run a lot of NHRA national events unless they were close to where I was at the time. Of course, I’d always run Indy, Columbus, and Pomona, but I’d say 90-percent of my time was spent match racing.” He also mentioned the biggest challenges of life on the road were keeping his Hawaiian Funny Car booked on a continual basis. He said, “At first, it didn’t matter if we were from California. I needed this car to have bookings, in order to keep three or four people on the road.” The other biggest challenge came in the way of repairs. Leong added, “We didn’t have a spare car in those days. If we hurt the body, we’d be down for a week thrashing to get it repaired and painted. I remember times when we had to miss a booking, so I’d lose that money on top of what it cost to repair the car.”

Another thing we have to keep in mind was the support equipment and the Interstate Highway System. It just wasn’t that easy to get around in those days. Station wagons and open trailers of the ‘60s gave way to ramp trucks, enclosed ramp trucks, Chaparral “pouch-side” trailers and crew cab Dually pickups, all the way to tractor trailers. When somebody asked Tom McEwen why he didn’t search for his old Hot Wheels ramp truck to restore it, he said, “I can’t count how many times that thing broke down on me and I had to have it towed hundreds of miles in order to make it to a booked-in match race. I don’t care if I never see that thing again.”

When we called Dale Pulde, he had some memories from life on the road, also. Pulde said, “I remember a time when me and (Steve) Montrelli ran nine races in 14 days. There were photos of us in the winner’s circle and man, we looked thrashed!” And on the subject of match racing, Dale added, “Match races worked for everybody. The fans loved it, the promoters loved it, and the racers loved it. We could make some money without tearing up all our stuff.”

To explain his reasoning, Dale added, “The way the cars were run then, you could check the bearings and go for it. You didn’t have to out-spend the guy next to you.” He also commented on the bookings, with some statements similar to Roland’s. Pulde noted, “I remember calling a booking agent somewhere around 1977 when we ran the War Eagle, and he said, ‘We have too many cars here now. Why don’t you stay out there (California).’?” The solution? Dale started making his own bookings and side-stepped the traditional agency routine. Pulde continued, saying, “The War Eagle days gave me the business experience I needed, more than anything. I didn’t really understand the politics of it, though. That was another issue all together.”

As one of the “Elder Statesmen” of the drag racing game, “The Mongoo$e” also has some tales of being on the road. He told us, “We’d be driving down the Interstate at 3:45 in the morning and see a bright glow on the horizon. We always hoped it would be a Waffle House, so we could get us a good breakfast. This was after racing three dates in one week and our booking agent would call me in Gary, Indiana, on a Wednesday night and he’d tell me we got you two more dates this week — they’re close by — they’re only an inch on the map! But he’d send us from Indiana (on a Wednesday night) to Englishtown for a Friday race, and we were already worn out.”

More Milestone Performances

Getting back to the milestone performances we touched on earlier, our trusty 2001 Winston Drag Racing Media Guide continued with entries for Kenny Bernstein, 5.397, April 5, 1987 from Ennis, Texas. On March 2, 1989, Prudhomme had registered a 5.193 at Baytown, Texas, and the hits just kept on coming. Fast-forward to July 6, 1993 where Chuck Etchells went 4.987. John Force appears twice in this category with elapsed times of 4.889 at Topeka, Kansas (July 6, 1996) and 4.787 (October 24, 1998) in Ennis, Texas. For Force and the rest of us, that 4.78 was a far cry from Don Prudhomme’s 5.987, run on October 12, 1975, at Ontario, California. Today, records don’t matter all that much, what with the advent of 1,000-foot racing for the fuel cars.

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