January 27, 2023


Still car-crazy after all these years

Jungle Jim Liberman at Detroit

Photo Courtesy of David Gutierrez

Is that really Jungle Jim at Detroit Dragway? The Shocking Unicorn Photo

Is that really Jungle Jim at Detroit Dragway? The Shocking Unicorn Photo

While scrolling through David Paine’s recent post on the Detroit Dragway Facebook Site, I came across something extraordinary. There, staring me in the face, was a unicorn.

In fact, it was a photo of Jungle Jim Liberman on the return road of Detroit Dragway, but it is the same difference.

Readers who aren’t thoroughly versed in the history of “The big track in Detroit” might wonder why this is such a big deal. After all, Jungle raced at tracks all over the country. Why shouldn’t there be photos of him at Detroit?

Jungle Jim at Detroit? Where’s the proof?

The thing is, there has been a massive debate about whether Jungle Jim ever made a pass at Detroit Dragway. Some time ago, Perry White, one of the admins and a driving force behind the Detroit Dragway Facebook group, challenged members to provide evidence that Liberman appeared at the track.

The results were largely inconclusive. Some insisted they had seen Jungle at the track, but the only photos fell into one of three categories:

Jungle Clare Sanders in his very similar blue Jungle Jim Nova
Clare Sander’s car looked just like Jungle’s, except it carried sponsorship from Steve Kanuika Speed Shop
Mark “The Kid” Susman in the red Jungle Jim Nova
Susman’s car was painted similar to Jungle’s but it was a dusky red color, not blue.
Pictures of Jungle without convincing details proving they were taken at Detroit Dragway
Pit photos of Jungle’s car on a ramp truck with no distinguishing background features weren’t much help.

For years I was a non-believer

Since I had never seen Jungle at the track and couldn’t remember any radio spots promoting his appearance, I was inclined to believe the Detroit fans had never encountered Jungle in their backyard.

David Paine recently posted a collection of photos from David Gutierrez. One of them showed Jungle’s ’69 Nova on the return road, with the unmistakable Detroit Dragway tower in the background. This was a unicorn photo. Rarer than a photo of a Sasquatch or a UFO. After years of searching, we definitely had proof. Proof positive that Jungle raced at Detroit Dragway at least once.

To appreciate the excitement behind this photo, you have to understand why Detroit fans were so interested. Track owner Gil Kohn contracted with every major touring pro in the business at one time or another. Garlits, Prudhomme, McEwen, Karamesines, Kalitta; the list goes on and on. The list is filled with drag racing royalty.

Even West Coast cars that seldom left California were known to make surprise visits to the track. Literally, anyone who could be considered a touring pro clocked in at the track at least once.

But until now, there was no evidence that Jungle appeared on that list. Undoubtedly the most popular and well-traveled funny car driver of his era, it was strange he never dropped in at the ditch.

Kohn’s Cheat Sheet

I had another reason to doubt Kohn arranged for Jungle to run at the track.

In the mid-seventies, I was track photographer for the dragway. One day, I was sitting in the track office, waiting for a copy of the latest race results. While cooling my heels, I noticed an oversize sheet of paper tacked to the wall. It was a handmade spreadsheet (no computers in those days). Each line contained the name of an active fuel funny car, followed by the driver’s name and contact phone number. Next to that, there was a dollar figure showing the minimum appearance money it would take to bring the car to the track. Finally there were some notes on how well the car usually ran and how popular it was with the fans.

While Gil Kohn and Ed Eaton handled most of the bookings, this cheat sheet was clearly designed for someone not familiar with the funny car landscape.

I assume it was for an employee who needed to hastily fill in an opening when one of the originally scheduled cars canceled at the last minute.

It was fascinating to see the difference in appearance fees for the various teams. At the time the average funny car team got $400 to make two runs. If they qualified for the third and final pass, they would get an extra $200-$300. Of course, the really big names got much more. Some of the major players commanded over $1000.

Jungle is Banned in Detroit

One name stood out. The line for Jungle Jim Liberman had a line drawn through it, and the notes simply read “DO NOT BOOK!!!” Obviously, Jungle was unwelcome at Detroit Dragway. Presumably, this prohibition also applied to Kohn’s other tracks: Motorcity Dragway and New York International.

I can’t explain why Kohn refused to book Jungle, but I can guess. Liberman had a reputation for often arriving late or even being a no-show. If Kohn or Eaton felt burned by Jungle Jim, they were the type to say “We don’t need you. Goodbye.”

In truth, neither party needed the other. All Kohn had to do is run a couple of radio ads promoting a funny car show and the fans would be lined up for miles waiting to get into the track. He didn’t need Jungle.

But many promoters weren’t in that position. Without a big name to anchor their programs, their shows would tank. Since Jungle was a fan favorite, they were happy to throw cash at Liberman to coax him to show up at their facility. So Jungle didn’t need Detroit Dragway, either.

Gutierrez’s photo shows that this “do not book” ban didn’t apply in 1969. Prior to seeing the photo, I was ready to state that Liberman never appeared at the track. Now it seems he did run there in the late ’60s. The no booking edict apparently went into effect somewhere between 1969 and 1975.

It is interesting to note how few fans there are behind the yellow fences. Hardly a typical crowd for a Detroit funny car show. This photo must have been taken early in the season or a test and tune session. The lack of fans may explain why so few photos have surfaced of Jungle at Detroit.

This photo settles a fierce debate

Some readers may not care one way or another, but for those of us who like to collect scraps of drag racing history, this is a very big deal. Jungle at Detroit Dragway. Without David Gutierrez’s photo, I would never have believed it.

My thanks to David Gutierrez and David Paine for permission to use this photo. Your kindness is appreciated.

Tom Bonner