May 23, 2022

Vintage-Nitro

Still car-crazy after all these years

Kenny Safford at Detroit

On Tour: Kenny Safford in Mr. Norm’s Super Charger at Detroit

Kenny Safford in Mr. Norm’s Super Charger at Detroit

Recently, I looked at Bob Mayer and the time he appeared at Detroit Dragway in July of 1974.

Driving the Tom and Jerry Nitemayer Funny Car, Mayer’s opponent that night was Kenny Safford in Mr. Norm’s Super Charger Dodge.

This probably wasn’t the first time these drivers faced each other, as both Safford and Mayer were heavily involved in the California front-engine dragster scene in the 1960s. Since both men were active at places like Bakersfield, Half-Moon Bay, Irwindale, and Lyons; it’s a safe bet that they encountered each other before.

The Amazing Roster of the Road Kings

Safford started his racing career as a member of the famous Road Kings car club. And what a society that was. As part of that gang, Safford rubbed elbows with future drag racing elites including Tommy Ivo, Don Prudhomme, Bob Muravez, Don “the Beachcomber” Johnson and others. These drivers hadn’t yet found stardom, but it is amazing so many drag racing headliners came from a single club.

After driving a variety of Southern California top fuel cars, Safford was ready to turn pro. But track owners wanted funny cars; the days of match racing Top Fuel cars had pretty much come to an end.

Stone, Woods and Cook on the Coke Circuit

Safford’s first funny car experience came at the wheel of the famous Stone, Woods and Cook Mustang. After an accident ended original driver Doug Cook’s racing career, the team went through a host of “hired guns.” Safford was one of these, enjoying a strong ’69 season. Running the Coke Calvacade of Stars circuit, Safford raced at more than 75 events in 1969 and notched several wins.

In 1970, Gary Dyer, driver of the legendary Mr. Norm’s Grand Spaulding Dodge funny car, tapped Safford to replace him in the car.

Referring to the car as legendary isn’t hyperbole. Norm Kraus’ Chicago dealership had established itself as the Mopar high-performance headquarters in that era. That reputation was bolstered by Dyer’s exploits at the controls of the Mr. Norm car.

In 1966, Kraus purchased the ex-Color Me Gone altered wheelbase A/FX Dodge Coronet and installed Dyer in the driver’s seat. The team immediately shifted the rear wheels forward another five inches, resulting in a match-racer with the front wheels pushed forward ten inches and the rear wheels a whopping twenty inches.

Dyer dropped a blown fuel-burning Hemi into the car and stunned everyone by ripping off an astounding 8.63 ET. At a time when most full-body race cars were struggling to break the nine-second barrier, Dyer was running almost a half-second quicker.

Kenny Safford on tour with Mr. Norm’s Super Charger

As Funny Cars morphed into flip-top fiberglass bodies over tubular chassis, Dyer and the Mr. Norm cars continued to inspire dread in their competitors.

The success of the Mr. Norm car continued when Safford took over the cockpit. Safford won an eight-car show his first time out with the car. He recorded many more accomplishments that year, including qualifying number 1 at the 1970 Springnationals.

For the first part of the ’70s, Safford drove the Mr. Norm car on a for-hire basis. There was talk of Dyer returning to the driver’s seat, which would have left Safford without a ride.

By the 1974 season, however, Dyer’s supercharger building business had expanded to the extent he no longer could be both a businessman and a funny car driver. Safford bought the race car along with the coveted Mr. Norm sponsorship.

This ’73 Charger was built by Romeo Palamides. Palamides reputation suffered when he introduced the so-called slipper design chassis in the mid-’60s. Both Arnie Beswick and Don Schumacher complained of handling issues with their Palamides built cars, and Ron Pelligrini put his Palamides built Beware Buick Skylark on the roof.

Mr. Norm’s Super Charger: a Solid Romeo Palamides Funny Car

Kenny Safford in the pits at Detroit Dragway
Life´on the road: Safford’s young son helps prepare the Super Charger for another pass.

Palamides rebounded with a much more successful design and headliners including Jungle Jim Liberman thrived with Palamides frame rails. Jungle’s only NHRA major event win came in his Palamides built Vega.

Safford’s ’73 Charger demonstrates that Palamides could construct quick and fast funny cars. If you study the size of the people to the car, you’ll understand why they called this a Mini-Charger.

This photo was taken at Detroit in ’74. Safford’s cars always looked great and he took good care of his equipment. He outran Mayer that evening, but his 6.68-219.50 wasn’t quick enough to earn him a spot in the final.

Safford drove this Charger to a win at the 1974 IHRA Southern Nationals and racked up an enviable win-loss record for the season.

Safford continued to run match races and was active on the IHRA championship trail. I’ll have more to say about Safford’s future 1976 Charger in another post.

Kenny Safford: a Nice Guy who often Finished First

Safford was always friendly to me when I saw him at the track. He would regale everyone with engrossing stories about past and current racers. His yarns were both funny and fascinating.

His easygoing manner and great sense of humor might suggest he wasn’t a fierce competitor. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was everyone’s friend in the pits, but when he climbed into the race car he became a no-holds-barred, take no prisoner’s racer.

Sadly, we lost Kenny Safford in 2014.

Read more about Kenny Safford and his racing career:

Paul Stenquist’s detailed Kenny Safford biography at Motortrend

Draglist’s tally of cars driven by Ken Safford