May 12, 2021

Vintage-Nitro

Still car-crazy after all these years

The Professor on the line at Detroit Dragway

The Professor Plymouth on the line at Detroit Dragway

Bill Shirey “The Professor” funny car | Detroit Dragway

Despite the stock wheelbase, Bill Shirey's Plymouth was a funny car with an injected Hemi under the hood and a drag chute on the rear bumper.
Bill Shirey at Detroit Dragway, 1966
The Professor Plymouth funny car is pushed off after breaking at Detroit Dragway in 1966. Tom Bonner photo (Kodak Instamatic)

May 1966. Detroit Dragway. I finally got to witness live drag racing. Accompanied by my parents, three friends and I attended an “Invitational” event at the Ditch. I remember it was a blustery, cold day; coats were definitely required. It didn’t matter to us; after dreaming of funny cars for years, we were finally seeing the altered wheelbase machines in person.

Funny Cars on Gasoline?

The only problem was I didn’t know any of the drivers or recognize any of the cars. The midwest didn’t get much press in those days and gas funny cars didn’t rate exposure in any case. The Detroit area could boast a number of nationally-known nitro funny cars: the Ramchargers, Seaton’s Shaker, Roger Lindamood, Dick Jesse, Eddie Schartman (in Roy Steffey’s Comet) and others. The cars at this event, however, were running pump gas. The big racing magazines didn’t devote ink to gas funnies.

The only name I did recognize was Al Bergler. In the years to come, Bergler would earn fame with a series of Motown Shaker flip-top funny cars, but in the spring of 1966  Bergler had yet to enter the funny car ranks. This day, Bergler  was running in the competition eliminator with his well-known supercharged Chrysler powered altered. As for the funny cars, it was like we had entered a strange alternate universe. The cars looked and ran like funny cars, but both the drivers and cars had strange, unfamiliar names.

Stock Wheelbase, but a true Funny Car

The car in the photo above in Bill Shirey’s “The Professor” Plymouth. At first glance, calling it a funny car seems like a stretch. It has a stock wheelbase, and except for the lettering, it looks like a glorified grocery-getter. Look more closely, however, and you will detect a drag chute above the rear bumper. Further inspection reveals foot-high injector stacks protruding through the hood. That indicates the big Plymouth relied on a fuel-injected hemi for power.

I didn’t know it then, but Shiery at one time was part of the famous “Golden Commandos.” The Commandos were comprised of Chrysler engineers, similar to the Ramchargers. What the Rams were to the Dodge division, the Golden Commandos were to Plymouth.

At some point, Shiery left the team to campaign his own car. I can’t say for sure, but I think this car might have been Shirey’s first ride after leaving the Commandos.

In the following years, Shirey would switch to an A/FX Dodge Coronet that would run deep into the nines on nitro – not bad for that era. This wasn’t a good day for Shirey, however. As you can see, the front wheels are cocked to the right and someone is leaning on the rear fender. I can’t remember this particular run (over forty years ago!) but it looks like Shirey’s Plymouth broke on the starting line and they are starting to push him off.

From quarter-mile to high-bank ovals?

I don’t remember seeing Shirey after this event. Google found a Bill Shirey from Detroit who drove in the NASCAR cup series from 1969 to 1972. Did the former funny car driver move to the high bank NASCAR ovals? It would be a huge coincidence if that was a different Shirey.

I don’t know where the “Professor” name came from. As far as I know, there is no connection to Kelly “the Professor” Chadwick who campaigned a series of Chevy funny cars out of Texas in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

The original Detroit Dragway Tower

In the background, you can see the original Detroit Dragway “tower.” It wasn’t really a tower; instead it was a trailer that was converted into timing station and announcing booth. In the late ’70s, track manager John Broaden would build an honest tower at the track. The old trailer, however would continue in service for another ten years after this photo was taken.

The tower carries the oversize NHRA logo. Detroit Dragway started as an NHRA track in 1959 and continued under NHRA sanction through 1966. The track switched to UHRA and AHRA rules in later years, before returninmg to the NHRA fold in in 1977.