Posts Tagged ‘funny car’


November 3, 2008

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.

That’s asinine.

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.

“My guy.”

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…




November 3, 2008
Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)

Bob's Pawn Shop (photo by Cole Coonce)


November 2, 2008

After setting the Land Speed Record, Gary Gabelich drives a 4 wheel drive Funny Car, a car doomed to make one run. During a closed photo-op for some drag racing magazines at Orange County International Raceway, it is agreed that Gabelich will merely “smoke the tires” for photographers. Caught in the moment, Gabelich stays on the throttle and the car climbs onto the guardrail and rolls, unraveling like a tin lid on a can opener. Gabelich’s body is not exempt from the slicing and dicing and a hand is severed as well as other limbs sliced open like so much canned fruit. Through a stroke of luck, after being stuffed into a station wagon and raced to the hospital with severed limbs in tow Gabelich is sewed back together by a crack team of neurosurgeons. He was said to never be quite the same, unfortunately. He is later beheaded in a motorcycle accident with a diesel truck on the streets of San Pedro, CA. As a testament to free-wheelin’ lifestyle, he is eulogized more in biker magazines than in any hot rodding publications.

“Gary was very upset when the car was sold because he wanted to attempt a sound barrier run with the car. In 1970 when they raced it, they had many mishaps. The most damning was they burned out the retro in the rocket and had to get a loaner or a gift motor to finish. As I remember the original rocket had about 40,000 pounds of thrust and the actual motor they used to set the record had about 14,000. That would lead you to believe that the car could go much faster given the space limitations of the Salt Flats, and the ground effects of going supersonic.

”I can’t even describe how many hours we spent talking about where the air goes (under the car). Would the air flip the car when supersonic ’splits the air?‘ They talked at great length about lengthening the rod on the front tip of the car to split the air farther out in front to prevent any negative effects. Craig Breedlove was a very close friend of Gary’s and he as well was always helpful in helping Gary advance his efforts. Craig and Gary where from the same town in California and I met Craig in 1966 on a water skiing trip. Most would think that they would be strange bedfellows when Gary got picked to drive the car, but Craig was one of his biggest supporters and fans.

“Gary was trying to figure out how to stop the new car going supersonic also.

“The problems are: no air for chutes and brakes won’t work over 400MPH. He was working on a splitting tail like the Space Shuttle and body panels that popped out. Of course, he never considered running anywhere but the flats.

”Gary‘s feelings about the car being sold was this: the car was owned by the Natural Gas Association as a publicity stunt. When the car got the record, they received millions of dollars in promotion which they never could have bought. They never saw it as a race car and felt that a return to the flats and the risk of an accident would become negative publicity. Hence, the car was sold.

”Gary even pursued contacting the new car owner about another run. Apparently, the car had been dropped while being off loaded from a ship when it left the country and there was some tweaking of the frame and that ended his interest.

”Gary then began trying to raise sponsors for a new car he‘d named The American Way. While he raised some eyebrows at the time, he raised no money for the project as interest in the LSR had waned by then. This was in 1979 nine years after the last true attempt and he wasn‘t breaking another guy‘s record; he would only be raising his mark and sponsors wondered how much interest this would raise. To raise the interest, he and Craig Breedlove stated they‘d create some new interest by building two cars and they‘d ’drag race‘ for the record on the flats. Wow, a 700MPH drag race! Of course, Craig would have to change his thinking to a rocket as a Jet vs. Rocket race would be no race in a drag event the best I can remember is something like 0 to 500 in 10 seconds (more than a few G forces).

”One of the reasons Gary was chosen to drive the car (Blue Flame) was because his full time job was he worked for Rockwell International in Downey, California as a ’Test Astronaut.‘ He tested all the space suits for the Apollo space missions. This is a glorious title to say he was the guy going around in the centrifuge. He was used to a lot of G forces, they were always concerned that the driver would blackout during acceleration.

”As far as Gary‘s life being cut short, while we all miss him lots, few of us could picture him dying an old man. Gary’s life was lived on the edge from the time he was 15 years old. Gary started racing by cleaning up the grease/oil mess for some kids in his neighborhood who had a drag car. He did this for a few years on the promise that someday they‘d let him drive it at the drag strip. That day came when he was 15, on the first pass he went faster than any run ever in the car. One year later, he had his own car and became a legend in California drag racing. He was the ultimate crowd pleaser being a lot ’nuts & wild‘ and being EZ to spot as he always wore an ostrich plume on the top of his helmet. He’d love to taunt his competitors on the starting line by shaking his fist and sometimes getting out of his car to yell something. Of course, it was all in good fun and I never met another racer who didn‘t love his magnetic personality.

”While setting the LSR made Gary infamous, many of his friends consider it a high point in his life that made the rest of his life chasing a dream. After the record, he didn’t know if he was a career LSR car driver or needed to return to his career in Drag Racing. Before his death, he nearly lost his life four times to my count. He flipped a drag boat @ 200MPH and as he went in the water the motor hit him in the back, nearly killing him. His kidneys were badly damaged and he was on dialysis for two years. He had two accidents in the same Funny Car (Beach City Corvette). Once, he lost the chutes and ended up on fire on a freeway and the second accident, the car caught on fire during a run and burned to the ground (he jumped out at over 100MPH). That accident burned holes clear through his goggles and helmet but he had only minor burns to his face and head. The fourth accident was a crash in his own Funny Car. It had 4 wheel drive which made it very fast off the line. On a photo shoot for a magazine, the throttle locked down during a ’burn out‘ and he lost control. At about 160MPH it went through a guard rail twice and flipped end over end.

”Gary had one of his hands cut off to the outside skin, one leg was behind his head and one was wrapped around the steering wheel. That leg became the problem. While his hand was re-attached and the leg behind him was dislocated, the surgeons wanted to remove the other leg as it was nothing but shattered bone from the ankle. Gary would not let them remove the leg, so they inserted a long rod to replace the bone. He adapted to the handicap, but spent about a year trying to get rid of gangrene.“ –Blue Flame crew member Paul Stringer.