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They called them all sorts of names back in the day – shake n’ bakes, fiberglass infernos, floppers – usually with good reason. The powers that be were never overjoyed that the moniker that stuck officially was ‘funny car.’ Fuel coupe was tried but the masses wanted the deadly serious vehicles to stay tagged with a title that met their exhibition status in drag racing, and the statement ‘Here come the funny cars’ which Jon Lundberg had made when the first altered Chryslers showed up in January 1965 at the AHRA season opener in Arizona has now echoed for almost a half-century.
Today, the revival of interest in the breed continues unabated since a few hardy souls decided to find and restore the vintage cars about 20 years ago (Jim Barrilaro deserves credit for doing so with Jack Chrisman’s Comet in the mid-1980s). The focus in the 21st Century is not so much the radically altered production machines (though we do see some of that as well), but the 1966-1976 era flip-top models that used a separate fiberglass body cloaking a chassis. There is something about that era that never loses its attraction, and I am willing to confess I remain smitten, not so much by the current crop of cars themselves as the heritage they represent.
First of all, there was the basic vehicle structure and appearance, especially prior to 1972. This was the musclecar era taken one step beyond; no longer was that Hemi Charger just another pretty boulevard face. It had evolved into something out of an acid trip – all noise and smoke and fire and color, fearsome and incredible. The musclecar era fueled drag racing in the 1960s, and funny cars were the logical final extension of those production vehicles. While they were still cool when drivers switched to Pintos and Vegas and Monzas and Arrows, they were not Camaros or Mustangs or ‘cudas, either. The street magic was gone.
Next were the personalities. Whether drivers like Butch ‘The California Flash’ Leal, ‘Jolly Roger’ Lindamood, and Paula Murphy or owners ‘Mr. Norm’ Krause, Nelson ‘Super Chief’ Carter and Roland ‘The Hawaiian’ Leong, these were names you knew before the money got big. Not that there is anything wrong with the money, but these people shaped and influenced the sport to be bigger than it was. Throw in the rivals like Jungle Jim Liberman, Arnie ‘The Farmer’ Beswick, and Mickey Thompson, and the chemistry was electric. Of course, that lack of funding also kept respectability to a minimum, and stories of various acts of craziness on and off the track abound. Corporate bucks changed that part of the sport, at least where we all could see it.
Technology? What technology? Seriously, these guys were on the jagged edge of rocket science, learning through terrifying first-hand experiences about safety, aerodynamics, and handling. There were some fatalities as a result (both drivers and spectators paid dearly for that leaning curve), but the danger lent funny car racing a certain mystique. Besides, at the time, and until Garlits introduced his first mid-engine rail in 1971, the slingshot occupation was much more dangerous. However, the unpredictable nature of funny cars gave them a leg up in terms of more base interests in mayhem. After all, they rarely had a ‘flash fire;’ once it was lit, it was cooking until well-done. We can be thankful very few drivers suffered that fate at the same moment.
The final element was the era itself. Racers were still quite independent, often able to create whatever the car needed with raw materials and ingenuity. Cars were towed on open ramp trucks, the crew might even catch a few winks on the ground when driving between races was extreme, and on-the-spot patchwork would be done to make sure whatever incident had occurred the previous day or week didn’t keep the car off the starting line. It was an ironman contest when the car was on tour with just two or three guys and they were trying to get enough appearance or win money to just get to the next stop. Those days are gone forever now.