Photos by Bob McClurg and Courtesy of Dick Brannan and Rick Kirk
THE Man Behind Ford’s Total Performance Drag Racing Program
We bring you the conclusion of the interview with Ford Racing’s man behind the scenes and on the drag strip, Dick Brannan.
DRM: By spring of 1965 things started to get a little “funny” at Ford?
BRANNAN: In April 1965, we also started construction on an altered wheelbase 427 SOHC Mustang Funny Car named Bronco because of the way it jumped around on launch. The car was constructed to compete against the altered wheelbase Mopar Hemi cars starting to appear all over. I won top ratings and races at major events, including the prestigious Cecil County Factory Showdown held in Maryland. Ford Special Vehicles and Holman Moody in Charlotte were also involved in building Phil Bonner a special match race 427 SOHC Falcon during the summer of 1965. Although it was mostly financed by Phil, we furnished engines and parts, and the car was extremely successful.
DRM: Sounds like Ford Special Vehicles had a lot on its plate.
BRANNAN: Yes! I was also responsible for development, driving, reporting race results and working with the secretaries at Ford helping translate reports into language that could be understood by important people within the company that were not involved in the day-to-day race operations. These reports were sent out each Monday before lunch, if possible. Usually late Monday afternoon we would have a meeting and discuss what had taken place during the previous weekend, and then we would start all over again.
DRM: But you led another life outside of the office?
BRANNAN: Outside the actual office, I did a tremendous amount of development work on the 427 SOHC engine, and on its Hilborn fuel-injected version. I also developed the C-6 automatic transmission into a reliable racing component. Most development of the C-6 program was done using the white mule car, as we called it. That car had all kinds of sophisticated data recording devices installed, which practically filled up the whole interior. With today’s compact electronics you probably could fit it all into something the size of a matchbox! In warmer months most of the testing took place across from our office on the Dearborn Test Track, sometimes until dark. Most of the color photos of the cars used in most articles were taken by company photographer Joe Farkas at this location.
DRM: Yes, but it wasn’t always peaches and cream. You crashed one development car, didn’t you?
BRANNAN: In late 1965 we altered three more 427 SOHC Mustang test cars to be used for the 1966 model year. All were equipped with the C6 automatic transmissions, one with fuel injection and two with carburetors. The first car was unlettered and principally used after being equipped with fuel injection for testing with nitromethane fuel, which we knew was coming. Tests seemed to go well; however, we found out the hard way that the Mustang’s 2+2 body shape reacted like an aircraft wing, creating lift at high speed. After turning 9.35-162.00 mph on a test run at Martin, Michigan, the drag chute failed to open properly, and the car flipped end over end at the finish line. It came down on its wheels off the track in a sandy area. Thankfully, there was no fire because it took a little time for me to get out of the car. I sustained injuries, including four compression fractures to four of my backbone vertebrae. At first I just thought that I had hit some sand on the track. After my recovery and lots of time to think, we got access to the Ford wind tunnel where an aerodynamicist named Jay Kessler spent hours with me trying to reproduce my Martin Dragway run. It was during those tests I discovered the rear tires would break loose on the top end. Considering the amount of horsepower being produced, the tests revealed there was only 12 pounds of down force on each rear wheel at the speed I’d recorded.
We started working with various spoiler configurations in the wind tunnel and found lowering the front and installing a spoiler at the rear of the deck lid not only added down force to the back tires, but it also cut drag. Further testing caused me to realize that the 108-inch wheelbase was just too short and any new models would have to be lengthened. I called Holman & Moody and said, ‘Man we have a problem. We’re going to have to hold construction on the cars being built until I can get there.’ We decided to lengthen the wheelbase on the first car 10 inches. That car was given to Phil Bonner but was ill prepared according to Phil and never quite operated as designed. Tasca received the first car with the 12-inch stretch, which I personally drove at Irwindale Raceway prior to their taking delivery before the AHRA Winternationals.
DRM: Bob Tasca took a lot of credit for developing the long wheelbase Mustang match racer concept with his Mystery 9 Mustang. How hands-on was he?
BRANNAN: Bill Lawton, driver of the Mystery Series Tasca Mustangs, was one of the best and most reliable drivers we had on the team. Bob Tasca himself played an advisory role in almost everything we worked on or developed at Ford, and his contributions should always be remembered. Being the largest Ford Dealer in the United States at the time, he had contacts, pull and good ideas. He was also helpful selling our program to budget management. Tasca (Lawton) ran and won the AHRA and NHRA Winter races in 1965 and 1966. I won the AHRA Funny Car fuel class, beating Arnie ‘Farmer’ Beswick driving his supercharged Pontiac GTO. Since I had another short wheelbase car to keep us going along, Tasca and Gas Ronda received the first 12-inch, stretch, long wheelbase cars.
DRM: Didn’t you also run one of these long wheelbase Mustangs yourself?
BRANNAN. Once again, this gets a little confusing. I actually had two shorter wheelbase and two stretched wheelbase Mustangs competing under the Bob Banner Ford banner. However, as I became more involved in development work later in 1966, we decided we weren’t going to continue with that program because Ford didn’t sell stretched-out Mustangs and did not like that image. That’s when I started developing the 1966-67 Ford Fairlane 427 Super Stock cars. Shortly after, I turned the driving duties of my ’66 long wheelbase car over to Hubert Platt and made him a long overdue member of the Ford Drag Team.
DRM: Those 427 Fairlanes were pretty memorable.
BRANNAN: The 427 wedge pushrod V-8 was a great engine for the Fairlanes, on the street and strip. We contracted with Bill Stroppe & Associates to build these cars, and most folks were quite successful with them. By that time Charlie Gray had moved on to handle all of NASCAR, and I was left with the drag program without the person I could always depend on so very much.
DRM: Is that when the Dick Brannan Ford connection came in?
BRANNAN: I did continue to be the one assigned to show up as a Ford dealer, which was originally part of my job description. I ‘sponsored’ some of the cars that Ford felt needed to be kept an arm’s length away from corporate. Through Dick Brannan Ford we were able to divert some of the attention away from the eyes of insurance companies and others trying to stop performance cars from being built and sold. On the roof of my ‘sponsored’ ‘68 Torino appeared the names A.J. Foyt and Donnie Allison and popular crew chief Banjo Matthews.
DRM: What other race products came about during your tenure with Ford?
BRANNAN: In 1967 The Cobra Jet Mustangs were developed and their public debut was right around the corner. By 1968 some of the 428 Cobra Jet Mustangs were running away with the Super Stock class, including one driven by Al ‘Batman’ Joniec, who won Super Stock Eliminator at Pomona. At that time I started working with Chuck Foulger, who had come into our department in late 1967. Chuck was a Southern California guy, who had worked closely with Bill Stroppe & Associates. He was a natural during the building of these cars.
DRM: When did you leave Ford?
BRANNAN: I left Ford in 1969, went to Georgia and started selling Piper airplanes. However, Bill Humphrey talked me into staying with the program as a paid consultant, and I continued with the team all the way through 1972 driving a 1970-71 Boss 429 Maverick under the Paul Harvey banner, though the car actually belonged to Ford. Later in 1972, and until Ford dropped the racing program completely, I helped develop the Boss 351 engine used in the Pro Stock Ford Pintos. [EDITOR’S NOTE: In 1972 Brannan drove the Paul Harvey Ford Pro Stock Pinto.]
I really enjoyed my time at Ford, and I’m fortunate to have played such an important role during such a glorious time.
DRM: What are some of your most memorable wins?
BRANNAN: Winning the Super Stock class at Detroit Drag way in 1962 against more than 60 other Super Stock cars. The wins and NHRA records I set in 1963 driving my 1963-1/2 427 Galaxie lightweight number 823. The 3,200-pound class win at the big AHRA Summer event at Long Beach, California, with my Bronco Mustang in 1965. Winning the Factory Showdown at Cecil County, Maryland, against all of the factory-sponsored cars, also in 1965. The AHRA Championships back to back in 1965 and 1966, and winning the [unsure of the date] Pro Stock Championship at Oldsmar, Florida, racing Arlen Vanke in the final, driving my 1971 Paul Harvey Ford-sponsored Boss 429 Maverick.
You have to remember that I worked for Ford as a development engineer and ran a team car. Our primary objective was to let our sponsored racers, including Ronda, Ritchey, Bonner, Tasca and Platt, do the winning while we developed the engines and cars to help enable them to do so. However, in those days, I set quite a few track records and won the AHRA Winternationals at Irwindale Raceway, the AHRA Summernationals at Lions, and won the NASCAR Championships during Speed Weeks down there in Daytona Beach, Florida.
DRM: We can’t help but ask this question: Whom do you regard as being one of the toughest racers you ever ran against?
BRANNAN: “Dyno Don” Nicholson was pretty tough. I raced him a number of times. Jim Thornton, driving for the Ramchargers, was also tough, but overall, I would say that that THE toughest competitor I ever raced was Ronnie Sox.
DRM: And what are you doing today?
BRANNAN: In 1972 I started my own business out at the Atlanta Peachtree Airport selling new Piper airplanes. We also had our own jet flight school where we trained pilots, which is where my ex-boss Charlie Gray got his Cessna Citation jet and Learjet Type Ratings in the late 1970s. I am Type Rated in Learjet and Hawker Jet. I also started a charter service company called Corporate Jet Aviation offering on-demand flights anywhere, anytime. Of course, like so many of my generation today, I am retired and trying to enjoy the memories.