Funny (Car) Things Are Happening in the 21st Century

By late 1965, the so-called ‘match-bash’ craze was on fire. This was the name NHRA had come up with to try and counter the ‘funny car’ moniker that was cropping up everywhere else to describe the stock-styled late-model racecars being birthed across the country. The reality of the moment was that motorsports’ imagination had again superseded the technology. Shortened wheelbases, supercharged and exotic fuel powerplants, and laws of physics all collided together, sometimes fatally. Therefore, the true credit for what happened in 1966 goes to Mercury, who switched to a Logghe-built tube chassis with a stock-appearing body mounted to it instead of building street cars into race cars.

So ‘66 was a year of major transition, even in the experimental ranks; the new Comets proved to be a real threat to the other contraptions that were out there. For many, the telling statement was the way the new ‘flip-top’ cars looked so much like the real deal at the local Mercury franchise. The Chrysler entries (and other Fords for that matter) were much more heavily modified in external appearance, with the exception of some of the new Chargers that showed up. NHRA ran the cars in Super Eliminator, using a now-defunct formula called XS for the class structure. Obviously, keen competition caused a morphing of these breeds into the basis for today’s funny cars, but for most of us who appreciate the styling of the muscle car era, the period from, say, mid-1968 to late 1972 was the pinnacle of the class evolution. A standardization of supercharging, coupled to carefully-executed wheelbase length, created funny cars that looked very close to what Detroit was putting on the street. By 1974, increased speed and liberal aerodynamic cues, coupled with the rapid advent of subcompact bodies like Arrows and Vegas, again removed the street identity from the machines.

As you know, the modern-age rockets that parlay horsepower into fame on the NHRA circuit have little in common with street entries. The design of the ‘cupola’ above the aero-styled body is more like a capsule than a passenger compartment; the wing and spill plate back end hides anything remotely identifiable from the quarter-windows back. Fans of nitro racing still love them (fans of nitro racing frankly love anything that snorts nitro, period), but are we missing the point of representing a true street car?

And, for me personally, I guess I must admit I am less than enthralled with where the nostalgia funny car business is going right now as well. This was supposed to be a fun way to race, and, as racers are wont to do, winning can sometimes be the only thing. But if nostalgia funny car racing morphs into some unidentified entry we call a ‘Cuda only because of Kenny Youngblood-added grille paint, we’ll lose what makes it special.

I know, I’m not the one standing on the throttle and wrestling the car down the track; aerodynamics play a critical role in safety when you get above 150 mph in anything. So perhaps the situation is one of me whining in my beer as the cars and their pilots prepare to go down-track as safely and as swiftly as possible. Increasing rear wing and narrowing the body or cockpit may be a mandatory ‘part and parcel’ of the modern revival, especially as the need for speed has pushed the envelope of performance.

But I stand by the idea that what made funny car racing in the 1960s and early 1970s so resilient in the minds of fans was the fact that the car wheeling to the starting line – a Gene Snow Challenger, a Snake ‘Cuda, a Super Duster, a Color Me Gone Charger - looked like what was for sale in their hometown. The extreme models – Tom McEwen’s one-shot-wonder Super Mustang of 1967 comes to mind quickest – never proved popular. It was the Camaros, Firebirds, Mustangs, Mercuries, and Mopars that truly put the class on the map, and finally forced NHRA to recognize the breed as a formal eliminator in 1970.