January 27, 2023


Still car-crazy after all these years

The Ramchargers Challenger -- first funny car in the sixes.

Why would anyone want to watch the Ramchargers Funny Car burn?

The Ramchargers Funny Car burned to the ground in a spectacular fire in July 1970. I believe this photo was taken the night the car was destroyed, making this one of last images of the first funny car in the sixes. Then again, The Ramchargers were frequent flyers at Detroit Dragway, so it possible this was taken on an earlier night.

I have no idea how many drag racing events I have attended. Some weren’t all that memorable, while it is easy for me to recall others. And a few are unforgettable, the events of that particular event unusually vivid.

One of my most indelible memories is the night the Ramchargers Challenger burned to the ground at Detroit Dragway.

The Ramchargers funny car wasn’t the first or last to be destroyed in a fire. Many other teams saw their rides go in smoke, including Jack Chrisman, Bruce Larson, Tommy Smith, Gary Densham, Fearless Fred Goeske, Mike Vansant, Al Graeber, Terry Hedrick and the Beach City Corvette (Twice!). What set the Ramchargers apart is the fact that at the time of its demise, their flopper was the quickest funny car in the country.

The Ramchargers funny car: first in the sixes

In mid-1970, Leroy Goldstein and the Ramchargers funny car astounded the drag racing world by turning in the first sub-seven-second funny car ET. Nowadays a six-second, quarter-mile pass isn’t very noteworthy. Today, a funny car lap in the sixes wouldn’t even be considered a good shut-off run.

With the technology available in 1970, however, the Ramhargers’s record pass was headline news. No piston-powered, full-bodied car had managed to dip below seven seconds in the 1320. Unless you were following drag racing back then, you probably can’t understand how astounding that run was in 1970.

I wasn’t there for that historic 6.95 pass at New York National. Only a few weeks later, however, Detroit Dragway hosted a big funny car show. Since the ditch was in the Ramchargers‘ backyard, it was no surprise that Goldstein and the candy-striped Challenger were the major drawing card for the event.

As my friends and I headed toward Sibley and Dix, we speculated about whether we would see a pass in the sixes. We didn’t have to wait long to find out. As the sun was dipping below the horizon, Goldstein ripped off an electrifying 6.96 at 206mph.

None of the other floppers were close. It looked like Goldstein and the Ramchargers had the night locked up. That is until their second round pass.

A six-second pass, then disaster

When the candy-striped Challenger blasted off the line to open the second round, everyone was waiting to see if Goldstein could better that earlier 6.96.

As the car approached the finish line, however, angry orange flames suddenly gushed from underneath the Challenger. I have seen numerous funny car fires, but this one was different because it seemed to come from below the car. Maybe it was simply my vantage point standing next to the old Detroit Dragway tower, but I never saw a car fire quite like that one.

The fire looked intense, but it seemed to fade away quickly. Almost immediately the announcer was on the PA saying Goldstein was safe and out of the car. “Leroy Goldstein is OK,” the announcer repeated.

Fire: A funny car driver’s worst nightmare

I let out a breath I didn’t realize I was holding. Funny car fires are no joke, particularly in that era. Many drivers experienced severe burns in racing fires. Only six months before a wicked fire ended the racing career of funny car star Gas Ronda. And a few weeks after the Ramchargers ill-fated run,  John Mulligan would receive severe burns at the wheel of his front-engined dragster at the US Nationals. Mulligan, considered one of the best dragster shoes in the country, lingered in the hospital for days before succumbing to pneumonia.

So I was happy to hear that Goldstein was unhurt. Reportedly, Goldstein commented that he would rather have broken both of his legs rather than be burned in such an intense fire. Someone overheard that remark and spread the rumor that Goldstein had broken his legs escaping from the car. That rumor made the rounds back then, but thankfully the Israeli Rocket did not suffer any major injuries in the incident.

Standing next to the tower, I watched as the flames died away. Everything looked dark at the top end. I remember turning to scan the staging lanes to see who might be a contender for the race win in case the Ramchargers couldn’t return.

Suddenly, my friend Dave nudged my shoulder. I turned my attention toward the finish line and was shocked to see the Challenger was engulfed again.

Fire: a beast to be respected and feared

I am not sure what happened. Maybe the onboard fire extinguishers reduced the flames but the fire returned when the extinguishers ran out. Perhaps the fire continued to burn slowly until they lifted the body to get Goldstein out. Oxygen might have flowed into the car and caused the fire to roar back into life.

Or possibly the fire did go out, but as the car sat on the track, oil laced with nitromethane pooled underneath. Then a spark or a chunk of hot metal fell into the highly flammable liquid and started a new conflagration.

In any case, the fire was back and even from a quarter mile away, we could see it was fierce.

All around us, spectators started running toward the top end, hoping to see the disaster unfold.

My friend Rod Carr was a huge Ramchargers fan. Watching everyone dashing toward the flaming race car, Rod shook his head disgustedly, “Why would anyone want to watch the Ramchargers burn?” he asked in distaste.

This is the end part part one. Watch for the next post which will delve into what happened next.


The Ramchargers Funny Car on eBay!


Tom Bonner