Half a day, half a night with the Funny Cars

Observing that the Continental Correspondent is not above spending some time at Santa Pod either watching or driving with the dragster set, I was determined to see the real thing during a recent visit to the USA. In fact I was lucky enough to be in the district where it all started, namely Southern California. The sport really became established after World War II, when the younger population had enough money to buy decent cars and indulge in the traditional traffic-light GPs of that era. The brighter sparks soon found that police fines were more than a nuisance and moved their sprinting activities to less populated areas, an activity which still continues today according to those outside the official drag racing movement, operated under the auspices of the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA) and the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and the biggest selling motoring magazine in the world. The magazine is called Hot Rod, has a circulation in the 800,000 region, and was the original rock on which the Peterson Publishing empire (based in Los Angeles) was founded. Members of its early staff were largely instrumental in establishing the sport as a legitimate activity on private drag strips and now that the sport has grown to being a commercially profitable nationwide activity, the bulk of the magazine's content is concerned with straight-line subjects, which is infuriating when one is trying to read a road test of a machine that is known to handle well, only to find it doesn't really appeal to Hot Rod because it cannot muster a hot 7-litre V8s quarter-mile time.

I went along to Orange County International Raceway to see the Eastern "Funny Car" and Pro Stock Championships in a fairly open state of mind. On the one hand I thought that there could be little skill in plunging down a straight line, apart from beating one's opponent to the draw at the start. On the other hand I knew from previous UK experience that the top "Rails" or "Diggers" were pretty spectacular. When I last watched the sport these top line devices were in the 160 m.p.h. and nine-second bracket. Today in the USA they are looking towards the first five-second runs and the 240-m.p.h. barrier! Considering that a hot production car or motorcycle is very unlikely to break 13 seconds for a standing quarter-mile, one comes rapidly to the conclusion that something has been going on.

Funny Cars are a recent development which has proved a real crowd pleaser. So many people now prefer watching these space-frame, glass-fibre-bodied replicas of popular saloons that the traditional Altered Roadster class has suffered in respect of both sponsorship and prize money. The meeting we attended also catered for Pro Stockers, which means factory or dealer-backed "sporty cars" with production steel bodywork and trim. Typical examples of the breed are the Dodge Challengers of Joe Allread (who built the engine) and Bill Bagshawe (who drives it) plus "Dandy" Dick Landy, who started as a definite favourite, having posted the only nine-second s.s. quarter-mile recorded in California in this class: other machinery in this category included an Oldsmobile 442, Plymouth Barracudas, Mustangs, Camaros and Javelins.

Both the Funny Car and Pro Stocker divisions tend to be ruled by the Chrysler "Hemi" engine, so called because of its classic combustion chamber design. Rules for the Pro Stocker classes hold power outputs down to the 600-b.h.p. region by banning supercharging, fuel injection and anything but pump petrol. However, this is enough to make the car rear up at the start and continue along much of the strip supported by its rear wheels and specially extended castors.

In the Funny Car league, anything goes. The engines are at least 7-litres (probably more with the aid of a stroke crank and cylinder barrel boring job), equipped with fuel injection, the ubiquitous GMC supercharger and the most potent mixtures of fuel known to the internal combustion engine. Nitromethane and alcohol are widely used. The layout underneath the replica of a saloon-car body looks like a shortened conventional dragster with the driver sitting firmly where the back-seat passenger would be amidst the chromed tubular chassis, always assuming that your passenger sits in the middle of the car. The glass-fibre body is hinged for easy access to the power and transmission trains. Peak horsepower can vary from 1,250 to 1,600 b.h.p. and the minute one of these monsters—there were sixteen present the day we went—starts up belief in the latter horsepower figure is instantly established and deafness rapidly follows!

Naturally the gearboxes, crown-wheel and pinion, half-shafts and attendant cases all have to be specially constructed to take over 1,000 b.h.p. being fed in from a standing start. Two firms in the Los Angeles area make these truck-like components; the conventional top-line dragsters still tend to use one gear and the rear 14-in. tread width slicks as a clutch, while the Funny Cars often have two- or four-speed automatics with a stall speed of 3-4,000 r.p.m.

For much of the afternoon I held my low opinion of the skills needed. The strip is a modern one with a countdown system of amber lights ("The Christmas Tree"), from which the cars start in pairs. There are two huge "T" signs at the end of the quarter, one of these automatically lighting up to indicate the first man past the lights. Starts are not always counted down exactly equally, so one gets a handicap effect for road cars running against modified machinery and so on. A red light greets those who start too quickly, so getting away cleanly is vital because that red light means a no-run for the competitor concerned.

Most of the Funny Cars are known to the crowds by the flamboyant names painted so beautifully along their arresting metallic sprayed flanks. At first one is tempted to laugh at all this showmanship, but when a car like Jungle Jim Liberman's "gets all outa shape" at 180 m.p.h. on a full-blooded opposite-lock slide, you begin to appreciate that there is a little more in this than the casual Hot Rod reader could ever suspect. Walking down to the start ("look out for fragments, fella!" the organisers said) we watched one top-liner Funny pilot inspect the tarmac carefully before embarking on the artificially aided "burnout" in his £12,500 machine. The burnout consists of sprinkling some sort of mopping up bleach powder on the start line area, positioning the fired-up beast on it and departing rapidly in an enormous pall of white smoke to shudder to a halt halfway down the quarter-mile: they may repeat this a couple of times in search of the perfect surface.

The burnout and timed run are all to the accompaniment of a traditional American hard sell commentary, delivered in radio disc-jockey style. Should the driver and crew put down petrol onto the tarmac to practice on, the crowd's delight at night will be almost unconfined as nearly 20 ft. of luridly coloured machinery paws the air with its dangling narrow alloy wheels and departs in a ring of orange flame. To watch all this happening is to witness the climax of the drag fan's love affair with Detroit, which now provides not only the basic machinery, but also supports drag racing as well. One of the works teams, Chrysler's Ramchargers, first broke the seven seconds barrier for Funny Cars earlier this year. The 200 m.p.h. mark went in 1960 to a conventional rig.

We arrived at about 2.30 in the afternoon, in time to watch qualifying runs for the Pro Stockers and a selection of the widely varying supporting racers. The Chevrolet powered "Generation Gap" screeched past our temporary outpost at the end of the quarter-mile in the "Bleacher" stands, having taken 10.87 sec. and crossing the line at 129.12 m.p.h. This was good enough to qualify seventh in that division. Parachutes and rear disc brakes bring the Funny Cars to a halt in the half-mile or so slowing-down area. As with the other naked dragsters, Funny Cars do not have radiators and thus they coast into the run-off tarmac to be collected by a towing wagon and jubilant or despondent friends.

Among the assorted supporting machinery was a V8-powered TR3, a blown V8 for a Ford Popular van (the old "sit up and beg" machine!), a 1955 Chevrolet saloon, which was very competitive in the hands of friendly Ziggy Zigger, and even an A40 Somerset with a Detroit V8 at the heart of things. While these cars were running I was entertained with a story about a Corvette Funny Car pilot who had no brakes or 'chute when he arrived in the run-off area: the result was a Corvette joining a nearby Freeway upside down and in excess of the speed limit. Naturally the story concludes with the injured driver collecting a speeding ticket from the ever-zealous police!

By this time Dave Beebe had brought his 400 cubic inch Dodge Hemi-powered device to qualify in the Funny Car division. His first effort, conducted amidst the heady aroma of nitromethane laced fuel, occupied 7.37 sec. and took him across the finish line at 192.30 m.p.h. The 'chute opens abruptly and my ears slowly recovered only to be assaulted again and again as others like Don "The Snake" Prudhomme and Tom "The Mongoose" McEwen in their Mattel Toys sponsored Plymouth Barracuda and Duster faced up to the challenge of the Blue Max, Diamond Jim Annin, Gene Snow's incredibly quick Rambunctious Challenger (the fastest car there on form, with a previous best of 6:81 sec., and over 210-m.p.h. terminal speed), Chi-Town Hustler, Mr. Norm, Big John Mazmanian's Iskenderian cammed Barracuda driven by Rich Siroonian, National Title holder Don "The Shoe" Schumacher et a!, many of them running at over 200 m.p.h.

From the start-line interviews we understood that men like Prudhomme and McEwen May race four or five times a week, all over the USA, probably driving a top-line rail as well. As darkness closed in the qualifying Funny Cars lined up with bodies, raised for the crowd's approval whilst the drivers were interviewed. I gathered that competition in this category is getting really tough with something like 18 cars within 0.2 sec. of each other in s.s. quarter times; that the tyre preference was for Goodyear with six or seven varieties ot "slick" (unpatterned tread), then Firestone with three alternatives to offer and then the M & H brand, the pioneer in the dragster tyre market. Predictions for 1970 standing quarter-mile times were quoted as 5.6 sec. for the top fueler rigs and 6.7 sec. for the droop-nosed Funny Cars. To give an indication of the money within the sport the organisers also announced that the Raceway would be host for the manufacturers' £14,500 Funny Cur Championship in November.

There was plenty of engine building talk too: apparently parts for the Ford 429 unit, as used in NASCAR stock car racing, were in short supply and a gentleman by the name of Ed Pink could produce alternative components. Chrysler's engine domination was challenged by the single overhead-camshaft Ford V8 of 427 cubic inches installed in Gas Ronda's Mustang. The interviewer was careful to pick out the non-Chrysler powered competitors to see what hopes they had for the future.

The East versus West aspect of the evening was slightly overplayed on our sense of geography as those from Texas (Gene Snow) and Chicago (Chi Town Hustler) are all billed as "big bad Easterners". Although the show was destined to go to a competitor from the East, the partisan South Californian crowd around me were quick to point out how many components come from the Los Angeles area, as do the most famous and powerful Chrysler Hemis by all account, a gentleman by the name of Keith Black getting the credit in this direction.

It looked to me as though there were a good 20,000 onlookers packed into the stands below the impressive Sundym windowed officials' tower, but I was informed that 16,000 would be nearer the mark. There seemed to be an interminable preamble to the evening's main attraction, but at last, after enduring the antics of the Leslie Nash Special versus Hannibal (both machines front the film, The Great Race), the action started with Snow versus The Blue Max. This was one of the evening's few clear runs, both cars shattering down the course with Snow just getting the verdict on a terminal speed of 211.76 m.p.h. However, "The Shoe" against Mr. Norm sent the commentator into a long "wohoooo I" as Mr. Norm looked ready to embrace the Armco.

Snow had already done below seven seconds in the opening run, but the majority of those that followed were above seven seconds, though they were still in the 200-210 m.p.h. bracket. I commented earlier that the strip was a modern one, but perhaps the most surprising thing was that the effective lighting was confined to the start and finish areas, thus two 1,900-lb. beasts without lights fight each other, and the cars' reluctance to proceed in a straight line, without the benetit of a central dividing wall. This quite often means that sheer bravery will win the day, for when two cars are converging on each other around the 200-m.p.h. mark, the first man to back off will have lost the run and all that lovely money, but it was easy to see that the real hotshoes like Prudhomme and Snow would have to reach disaster point before decelerating.

Perhaps the funniest remark of the evening was made by Jungle Jim Liberman, who confessed that his spectacular, flaming wheels in the air departures were solely due to his nervousness! Apart from him most of the humour seemed to be directed at those who managed to get the car sideways on at the highest possible speeds.

It took Landy just over 10 seconds to beat the Red Light Bandit in the Professional Stocker class, but whichever way it went Chrysler would have been happy. The Landy car boasted some very nice magnesium alloy front wheels for this occasion, but I do not know whether this team is still using the twin-plug cylinder head which they developed for the Hemi earlier in the season. Because of driver's technique, and/or chassis length, the Pro Stocker cars are far more prone to the crowd-pleasing "wheelies" and the rear-mounted castors proved a valuable accessory for all the better runs.

In the second round of the Funny Car runs Snow put up the best time and speed for the evening at 217 m.p.h. and 6.87 sec. However, he did not win, going down to eventual winner Schumacher, also billed as one of the men from the East. I can recall leaving Orange County Raceway some time after midnight, having been burned in the Bleachers, shaken by noise and cooled by courtesy of the ever-present air conditioning in the tower: naturally enough I enjoyed the whole thing, which should be part of any European's schedule when visiting the States, even if only for the sheer bafflement it will produce! —J, W.