SWAMP RAT XIV
The rear-engine configuration has been
the only choice for Top Fuel chassis
designers for 44 years now, but could
it ever be a viable alternative for a
Funny Car? Don’t even think about it.
Several drivers tried it in the late
1960s and early ’70s, most notably
Doug Thorley, Fred Goeske, Eddie
Pauling, Jim Dunn, and (believe it or
not) John Force, whose first Funny
Car, “The Nightstalker,” was purchased
from Hall of Famer Jack Chrisman, who
got rid of it before he ever raced it.
Only Dunn’s rear-engine Funny Car
was truly a success. “Big Jim,” now in
his 80s and the crew chief for Funny
Car driver John Hale, held his own
(TOP) Funny Cars are front-engine for sound
reasons. (ABOVE) That can be disconcerting
when they go bang, but driver protection
includes titanium/composite shields.
THAT’S JUST NOT FUNNY…
against superstars Don “the Snake”
Prudhomme, Ed “the Ace” McCulloch,
“Jungle Jim” Liberman, and Tom
“the Mongoose” McEwen in the ’70s.
He even won an NHRA national event,
the 1972 Supernationals at Ontario
Motor Speedway. But Dunn
abandoned the scary, unpredictable
machine after just two years.
For one thing, the weight
distribution was, and still would be,
totally wrong. There wasn’t enough
downforce on the front end when
Funny Cars were running 210 mph,
much less the 300mph-plus speeds of
today. But it isn’t just that. Positioned
so far forward in the car, with the
windshield just inches in front of their
face and their feet between the front
tires, drivers wouldn’t realize how
sideways they were until it was too
late to make a correction – just ask
the guys who were crashing them in
the 1960s and ’70s...
a rear-engine car of their own.
After winning race after race at
backwoods tracks all around the country
that summer, Garlits arrived in
Indianapolis for the NHRA Nationals (drag
racing’s biggest race wasn’t renamed the
U.S. Nationals until 1972), where he
made what many still consider the
greatest run in history – a 6. 21 that
covered the field by the unheard-of
margin of nearly two-tenths of a second.
(Steve Carbone was No. 2 with a 6. 39.)
Big Daddy dominated the first four
rounds of eliminations, running better on
his slowest run ( 6. 32) than any of the
other 31 drivers did on their best ( 6. 39),
but in the final allowed himself to become
embroiled in the lengthiest, most
memorable burndown of all time – nearly
three minutes. Carbone, who always
vowed that he’d get Garlits back for
burning him down in the 1968 Indy final,
Back then, the entire championship was
predicated on who won that one round.
Didn’t matter. Gerry “the Hunter” Glenn
was a deserving champion with an
outstanding 6. 59, but everybody knew
who the king of Top Fuel was in 1971 – the
same guy who ruled the ’60s, Don Garlits.
With his innovative 1971 dragster,
Garlits won more races than anyone else
all year, ran far quicker and much faster
than anyone ever had, and single-handedly catapulted chassis science
further forward than any car ever had or
has in the nearly half-century since. Only
one driver, relative unknown Art Marshall,
would ever win again in a slingshot.
Others had tried building and racing rear-engine
dragsters, but found them to be virtually undrivable.
When Garlits got Swamp Rat XIV hooked up for the
1971 season (BELOW, Columbus, Ohio; nearest
camera), the writing was on the wall for the slingshots.
“I had my doubts. Every
time one of those rear-
engine cars got up around
200mph, it would crash”
(LEFT) “Big Daddy”
mood at Englishtown,
N.J., 1971. Garlits
wasn’t a trained
engineer, but his
constant quest for an
advantage made him
drag racing’s greatest
innovator, as well as
its greatest driver.
won easily with a 6. 48, while Garlits
smoked the tires off the line and suffered
what he still considers the bitterest defeat
of his unparalleled career.
The year came to an anticlimactic end
when Garlits ran low e.t. in the final round
of the NHRA World Finals at Amarillo
( 6. 55), but invalidated it with a foul start.