April 15, 2021

Vintage-Nitro

Still car-crazy after all these years

Limelight Dodge: the Jack-Knife Funny Car

The front clip tilted forward, gasser style. The rest of the Limelight Dodge's body however, was hinged at the rear and could be titlted up like a typical funny car.
Limelight Dodge funny car on the return road at Detroit Dragway
The Limelight Dodge funny car on the return road at Detroit Dragway in 1967 | 126 Instamatic image by Tom Bonner

One of my favorite images from Detroit’s Dragway’s Midwest Championships is this shot of Bill McKessson’s Limelight Dodge Charger funny car.

McKesson went on his own to run the Limelight Dodge

I’ve discussed Steve McKesson’s Mustang funny car at length in earlier posts. In 1965-66, brothers Bill and Steve McKesson campaigned an altered wheelbase Plymouth Fury funny car. It was typical of the early A/FX funny cars, with a steel body, altered wheelbase and an injected 426 Hemi. For 1967, the brothers split up. Steve built a flip-top Mustang, while Bill remained with Mopar and assembled the radical Dodge Charger funny car you see here.

The car was state of the art, with a full Logghe chassis and a injected, nitro-burning Hemi. I call it a jack-knife funny car, because of the way the body opened. The front clip tilted forward, gasser style. There is nothing very unusual about that; many early funny cars featured tilt front-ends. The rest of the car’s body however, was hinged at the rear and could be titlted up like a flopper. So when both front clip and the main body were titlted upward, the car opened up like a jack-knife.

To make things more interesting, the car had opening doors, which made quite a sight when the body was up, the front end was titled forward and both doors were wide open. I don’t remember seeing another funny car built in this fashion.

I have found several references to this car, including the usually reliable DragList, which claim the body of the Limelight was fiberglass. I’m sceptical about that, for two reasons.

First, when the body was opened up, it retained most of the attributes of a factory Charger, including openings for the heater core, the typical slots in the cowl and factory door hinges. Sure, all of these things could have been reproduced in ‘glass, but why bother?

The second reason I doubt the body shell is fiberglass is this photo. A fiberglass body built for racing wouldn’t lend itself as a perch for the driver while being towed down the return road. At the very least, the weight of an adult male would cause stress cracks. If any chuck holes caused the car to jounce up and down, I would expect a glass body to rip from the driver’s weight. The front clip, trunk lid and doors might have been ‘glass, but I suspect the body shell was original Chrysler steel.

Who Drove the Lightlight Dodge?

Which brings me to the subject of the driver himself. There is some discrepancy over who was driving the Limelight in April 1967.

The Limelight was at the Detroit Autorama in January 1967. According to placards on the car, the driver was Del Hienelt, who I discussed at length in the Steve McKesson post.

The Drag News report on the Midwest Championships seems to imply that Bill McKesson himself was at the wheel of the Limelight that Sunday at Detroit Dragway. Ordinarily, I would trust the Drag News article, but many of the drivers of other cars at the event we’re not identified, leading me to conclude that the writer didn’t do much research into who was driving what.

As for me an my friends, we believed Hienelt was driving that day. I now know the Hienelt was driving for Larry Coleman by August of 1967, so he had to have left the Limelight’s driving seat sometime between January and August. Can anyone identify the driver in the photo? Is Hienelt? Bill McKesson? Or could McKesson have hired another driver after Hienelt left?

Bonus points if you can identify the person with the big hair steering the car on the return road.

I must have been near the top end when I snapped this photo, judging by the cars in the pit area across the track, The pit road bleachers have ended, and the cars assembled against the fence look like street driven vehicles. The street cars typically pitted near the top end, while the all-out race cars usually clustered behind the stands near the starting line.

One final question. What happened to Bill McKesson and the Limelight Dodge? I don’t find any references to either the man or the car after 1967. If you know something, leave a comment below.