You’re saying that The Gas Company people were in Oklahoma City in ‘68 when you guys set the drag strip record?
PETE FARNSWORTH: Right, and we signed a letter of intent with the natural gas company contingent upon the fact that we could get tires from Goodyear that were capable of very high speeds.
The Blue Flame was designed to go 1000 miles an hour structurally and aerodynamically, we thought. You know, that’s speculation…
You start getting into and beyond transonic and supersonic regions and all kinds of…
PETE: Well, we wind tunnel tested the model, at Ohio State University’s wind tunnel. (We did) subsonic, transonic, supersonic (tests). And uh, so anyway we signed this letter of intent. Suba was going to be the driver. He was a super personable guy, very knowledgeable, smart as a whip, this guy was General Manager of the repair department of the biggest Buick dealership in Evanston, Illinois when he was 19 years old. Really sharp.
But anyway, two weeks after he set the 1/4 mile ET record, he jumped into a friend of his top fuel car at Rockford Dragway, to try to figure out why they had a handling problem. They couldn’t straighten it out and he got out on the edge of the drag strip and they had a 55 gallon barrel marking the end of 1/4 mile – marking the edge of the track and he clipped that with the front wheel and then totaled it.
PETE: Asinine of him to run the car that way. He didn’t know, it was only a couple of days or weeks or so after that that we got the okay about the land speed record driving and he never knew about, I mean he knew about it, he was part of the idea but the fact that we had actually gotten it.
That is so brutal. So now, so now the search is on for somebody to shoe the car and you’re thinking target speed, 850 to 1000 miles an hour.
LEAH: And the gas industry at that time, when Chuck died they wanted to pick out a driver, someone who would do TV interviews and be Mr. Gas America, it had to be someone dynamic that was going to be in favor of, they really did cooperate in the search for someone else.
Okay, so Reaction Dynamics was kind of an umbrella corporation that would exempt you guys from liability if something weird happened with a car and also maybe tax reasons too…
PETE: Tax reasons too. But um…
So the search is on for a driver, how did that go?
PETE: Well, we Dick Keller and I, both knew (Top Fuel racer) Don Garlits real well. You couldn’t ask for someone who was more knowledgeable or observant of things that was going on with a car, so he was the first choice – he was the only choice at that time, we never even thought about anybody else and Don agreed to drive it, so months went by and we got further along with the design and we were going to have a press conference with the Gas Industry in Los Angeles for the announcement – the driver and the project – and just before that happened Don called us up and said he had to back out of the deal. He said he had sponsor pressures or something, that they didn’t want him to risk his life driving this car and he was making pretty good money at that time with his various sponsorship deals and as I remember it that was mostly why he had backed out if it.
So all of a sudden here we had the press conference scheduled and nobody to drive so we quick made up a list of people who we thought might be acceptable and Danny Ongais who raced for Mickey Thompson at that time was the first one that we thought of, he was pretty versatile and a nice guy. Art Malone was on the list and Craig Breedlove and we made up a list of ten, Gabelich who we had met because he flew out from Los Angeles, he wanted to run the X-1 rocket car, after we weren’t going to run it anymore.
After we interviewed him we realized he had done an awful lot as well and he explained he worked at North American Aviation as a test astronaut and had done high altitude sky diving with the power capsule, done all sorts of stunt stuff, you know diving off Hoover Dam. He was a genuine…
… Was diving off Hoover dam was that part of his duties with North American?
PETE: No, no that was strictly a…
He had a weekend off?
PETE: He was an adventurer. In fact he drove the Beach City Chevrolet funny car, (note: which burned to the ground.)
He drove the Valkyrie (jet dragster).
PETE: The Valkyrie. He had run the Moon Eyes Invader, I believe at that time, the Allison-powered car that belonged to that guy who could port headwork, Jocko’s Porting Service…
Jocko Johnson – yeah.
PETE: Yeah, he drove that car out on the Salt Flats. So he had this tremendous background of experience behind him and that tying in with the Space thing, he was (Mercury Seven astronaut) Wally Schirra’s exact size and he did a lot of space checkout for Wally Schirra.
It was explained to me by somebody basically that if Gabelich survived it then it was okay for the astronauts to try it. (laughter)
PETE: Well, that may have been.
I mean, you can’t have one of the Mercury Seven getting killed before lift off…
PETE: Gabelich was a very personable fellow. Good with people, likable and uh, not a bad looking guy either. He was on the Dating Game TV show, the kind that gets the girl and he did get the girl.
LEAH: He was his own product.
PETE: Later on he became the subject on the Dating Game and the girls vied for him. So he’s already in with the TV stuff and all that stuff. We personally went to Breedlove and figured he had the experience out there. He didn’t want anything to do with it because he didn’t build it and I’m the same way…
That’s just the confirmation I’m looking for because Craig told me that you guys went to him and somebody else said that he was not even in the loop.
PETE: Oh no, (after Garlits) he’s the first one we went to.
Excellent. So was his Goodyear sponsorship a conflict of interest?
PETE: Well, the way he explained it that he didn’t design and build the car, he didn’t want to drive it. And we had no idea what he would want in the way of money cause he had already been running you know, he had held the record at that time, why should he break his own record, you know there was all sorts of reasons.
But that was part of Shell Oil and Goodyear’s thing, too, you know “you’re the first to go 400, 500, 600 mph; you haven’t reaped the benefits of the 400, 500, 600 yet.” He explained to me it would be prudent for him, because he wanted to go Mach 1, his car was called Sonic One at the time and – it would be beneficial for him to have an adversary who took the record away – and then…
LEAH: He could get the sponsorship to come back with his own glory instead of ours…
PETE: So anyway he basically turned it down. Next we went to Mickey Thompson to talk to (funny car driver) Danny Ongais and uh, Mickey wouldn’t even let us talk to Danny.
PETE: That’s right, he never contacted me, you know, that’s it – so we never did talk to Danny and so here we are, we’re out there in Los Angeles, no driver, so we called Gabelich. Gabelich was just tickled pink. He loved to do it. Didn’t take him long to accept and so we presented that to the Gas Industry and they met him. They decided yeah, this guy can handle the job as far as the p.r. end of it, from there we had our press conference and we all went back to work and Gary was our driver.
I remember the Purple Gang Top Fueler that he drove with the big purple plumes and kind of the feathers coming out of the crash helmet.
PETE: Say if you don’t mind I’m going take a couple of more pieces…
(TAPE ROLLS OUT)
Tags: Chuck Suba, Craig Breedlove, Danny Ongais, Don Garlits, funny car, Gary Gabelich, Jocko Johnson, Jocko's Porting Service, Leah Farnsworth, Mach 1, Mercury Seven, Mickey Thompson, Pete Farnsworth, Purple Gang, Reaction Dynamics, Sonic 1, top fuel dragster, Wally Schirra