January 27, 2023


Still car-crazy after all these years

Dick Jesse versus the Hemi Hunter

Dick Jesse versus the Hemi Hunter

Detroit Dragway Action: Mr. Unswitchable versus Hemi-Hunter

Dick Jesse takes Mike Nicopolis in the Hemi Hunter Camaro
Dick Jesse's GTO funny car faces off with Mike Nicopolis in the Hemi Hunter Camaro flopper. Tom Bonner photo (Instamatic 126)

In April of 1967, I attended the Midwest Championships at Detroit Dragway. The event included eliminations for both nitro and gas burning funny cars. Most of the cars were part of the UDRA circuit out of Chicago, and they ran the gamut from steel bodied match racers to the latest all-fiberglass missiles.

This is my favorite photo from the event. In the first place, it is my first real action photo. I was still using my lowly Kodak Instamatic, but my dad had given me an auxiliary telephoto lens that allowed me to get a closer view of the cars on the starting line.

The photo is soft and blurred, but I really like the rear tire on Dick Jesse’s GTO. It leans forward in an oval shape, just like the Rat Fink Tee-Shirts they used to sell. That GTO is gettin’ it!

The other thing I like about this image is that it sums up the state of the sport at the time. In the near lane, you have Dick Jesse’s steel body GTO, running a well-modified factory Pontiac frame. In the far lane, Mike Nicopolis is running an all fiberglass Camaro funny car called the Hemi Hunter. The Camaro is probably several hundred pounds lighter that the GTO.

Jesse was able to remain competitive, thanks to the Supercharger on top of his Pontiac V-8. Nicopolis, in the Camaro, relied on an injected Chevy “rat-motor.” The huffer gave Jesse the power to run with the lighter injected cars, so for 1967, he could still enjoy some success against the floppers. The tide was running out for the match-bash A/FXers, however. Over the next 18 months or so, the majority of flip-top cars added superchargers of their own.

Once the bulk of fiberglass funny cars were running superchargers and nitro, there wasn’t any way for the older steel-bodied, match-bash cars to remain competitive. So this photo represents the high-water mark for the match-bash cars. Prior to this point, someone could buy a factory muscle-car, add a racing engine, alter the wheelbase, massage the frame and have a competitive funny car. In the future, the flip-top fiberglass machines would rule. There is no doubt that the AA/FC floppers are fun to watch, but I do miss the colorful A/FXers.

Incidentally, Jesse took this race, in part because the Hemi-Hunter lost the gearbox immediately after I snapped this picture. The handwriting was in the wall, however. Jesse’s GTO went on to score a win at the 1967 US Nationals, but he wasn’t competing as a funny car. The flip-top cars dominated funny car eliminator, so Jesse wound up running as an altered. In 1968, Jesse retired the steel car in favor of a radical, chopped-top GTO on a tube chassis.

Tom Bonner