November 30, 2022

Vintage-Nitro

Still car-crazy after all these years

Eliminator Cougar at Detroit Dragway

Nicholson's Eliminator Cougar

Frank Oglesby in Don Nicholson’s Eliminator Cougar

Frank Oglesby driving Don Nicholson’s Eliminator Cougar

Drag racing fans should be much more familiar with the late Frank Oglesby than they are. His fame ought to have been assured due to his close association with such greats as Arnie Beswick, Don Gay, and Don Nicholson. But when discussions about funny car history come up, Oglesby tends to be overlooked.

Oglesby was both a tuner and a driver. After serving as the wheelman and wrench for several early funny cars, Oglesby claimed he was the one who convinced Beswick to run nitro in his altered wheelbase Pontiac

He eventually campaigned his own Quarterhorse Mustang, which led to a multi-year Mello Yellow sponsorship deal. He later experimented with a series of jet dragsters.

Oglesby and the Dyno Don Connection

He was perhaps best known for taking over the wheel of the Eliminator Mercury Cougar from Dyno Don Nicholson. In 1966, no funny car was more feared than Nicholson’s Eliminator I Comet. As one of the original Logghe flip-top coupes, Nicholson’s injected Comet became the dominant force in Funny Cars of the era. Aside from his fellow Mercury drivers, Nicholson had little to fear from anyone on the match-race circuit.

Drag racing never stands still, and by the 1969 season, the competition had caught up with the Mercury factory cars. Teams across the country were campaigning their own tube-chassis, fiberglass creations.

Racers naturally look for any advantage they can find, so it isn’t surprising that many of these new floppers sported superchargers. Team Mercury replaced the Comet bodies with the swoopier Cougar. But that wasn’t enough. Faced with declining victories, Nicholson and the other Mercury factory drivers were forced to upgrade to a blower.

This new normal didn’t sit well with many drivers. Only a few years before, many flopper pilots were chasing Super Stock trophies in 120mph carbureted, gasoline-powered sedans. Now they were storming around with blowers and healthy amounts of nitro.

Fire Tests Gold, Suffering tests brave men – Seneca

The issue wasn’t the greater speed and acceleration. There was one danger lurking in the back of almost every driver’s mind at the time. Fire.

Don McLean’s super hit American Pie contains the line “fire is the devil’s only friend.” I don’t know about that, but I do know fire is a racing driver’s worst enemy.

Severe burns ended the career of Gas Ronda, one of the most respected drivers in the country. Many other drivers suffered disfigurement and painful skin grafts after uncontrolled fire turned their machines into rolling blowtorches. John Mulligan, one of the very best top fuel shoes of all time, lost his life to pneumonia derived from intense racing burns.

High-speed fires still pose a danger today, but safety technology has advanced considerably in the last fifty years. In 1969, race car fire prevention was still in its infancy. As funny car drivers contemplated the hazard of their cars erupting into an inferno on wheels, many began to question their choice of career field.

Nicholson was one of those drivers. It wasn’t an issue of fear. A driver could depend on his skills and reflexes to steer a car at high speeds. But drivers had little control over when a valve, a connecting rod, or a crankshaft might decide to come apart on an all-out pass. Often, the result was a devasting fire, fueled by the whirlwind of air that aggravated the sea of flames. There is no escape from a top-end conflagration fueled by hurricane-force winds.

I’m just glad to have survived

A small Detroit area publication called Racing Pulse interviewed several funny car drivers in 1969, including Nicholson. The men in the interview all expressed concern over the specter of high-speed fires. I regret that I no longer have that issue. I’m paraphrasing, but I remember one of the drivers remarking, “Racing used to be fun. Now when the night is over, I’m just glad to have survived.”

When Nicholson’s famous Cougar showed up at Detroit Dragway, I was surprised to see “Driver: Frank Oglesby” written on the side. Why was Oglesby driving Nicholson’s factory-backed car?

I asked around and was told Nicholson was taking a break and Oglesby was the temporary driver. Nicholson would return to the driver’s seat soon.

Perhaps Nicholson really did imagine he would revisit the funny car ranks, but it never happened. In actuality, he was in the process of moving to the new Pro Stock category. Oglesby would become the Eliminator’s permanent hot shoe.

Even with Oglesby’s name emblazoned on both sides of the car, I suspect many fans still thought Nicholson was in the seat. The Eliminator name was so closely linked with Dyno Don that most fans couldn’t imagine anyone else at the controls.

Was Frank Oglesby driving in the Shadow of Dyno Don Nicholson?

Perhaps that explains why Oglesby remains a relative unknown. He spent two seasons campaigning the Cougar, two seasons where the people in the stands assumed he was Dyno Don.

His Quarterhorse and Mello Yellow cars were never as famous as the Eliminator. Oglesby never recovered the name recognition that he lost when driving for Nicholson.

Although he basically operated behind the scenes, Oglesby had a major impact on drag racing. Whether it was developing innovations for the early match-racers or convincing Mello Yellow to invest in the sport, Oglesby was there, getting it done. Too bad the average fan has no idea who he was or what he accomplished.

NHRA’s Frank Oglesby memorial.

  • #FrankOglesby
  • #EliminatorFunnyCar
  • #DynoDonNicholson

 

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Photo Details

Captured with a Kodak Instamatic on Kodak 126 film.
Frank Oglesby preparing for Detroit Dragway’s evening program.


Tom Bonner