I can still remember the excitement I felt seeing the Hawaiian Funny Car for the first time. It wasn’t like I was a huge Hawaiian fan. I liked the car, but it wasn’t my favorite. I had already seen some legendary funny cars including the Ramchargers, Seaton’s Shaker and Roger Lindamood’s Color Me Gone. So I wasn’t star-struck at seeing a famous race car.
But this was Roland Leong’s Hawaiian. It was exotic. The quintessential California funny car. This was drag racing royalty. The reports coming out of the big California tracks always showed Leong and his drivers to be a dominant force.
Before the Funny Cars, there as the Hawaiian Top Fuelers
Initially, Leong tried driving but discovered he was better in the role of team manager. He recruited some of the best drivers in racing to shoe his top-fuel cars, including Don Prudhomme and Mike Sorokin. Leong wrenched his cars to major top fuel wins which included the Winternationals (twice), Bakersfield Fuel and Gas Championships and the US Nationals.
Then Leong decided to go Funny Car racing. His first car, a full-size Dodge Charger had a very short life. Driver Larry Reyes reported the big car handled poorly. He barely qualified for the 1969 Winternationals. Then after a first-round win, the Charger got airborne and crashed. Reyes wasn’t hurt, but the first Hawaiian funny car was history.
The Hawaiian Mini Charger is Born
Leong built another Charger with major changes. The new car was chopped, channeled, shortened and narrowed; creating a scale Charger that was roughly the same size as the Challengers, Novas and Mustangs other racers were campaigning. The car looked like the a the real thing, but if you parked a factory Charger next to it you would immediately see the funny car was scaled-down in every dimension.
If you are familiar with the proportions of a ’69 Dodge Charger, you can gauge the size of the car in the photo with the people standing around it. Looking past the funny car, you will notice an actual yellow Charger in the staging lanes. The factory car is too far away for a closeup comparison, but notice the size of the driver’s head in the street-driven car. Analyze the size against the people around the funny car and you will have some idea how much smaller Leong’s flopper really was.
The new mini-Charger immediately proved itself. Unpainted, with shoe-polish lettering, Reyes and Leong won three big events the first weekend it was on the track. The team dominated events in Southern California that season.
The Hawaiian Funny Car Comes to Detroit
Now, this fearsome machine was at Detroit Dragway, ready to show what it could do. We arrived early, and the Hawaiian was one of the first feature cars to unload. The dramatic paint scheme combined with the bamboo-styled lettering immediately captured my eyes.
The car lived up to its reputation, winning the title under the lights. Leong and Reyes returned to Detroit Dragway to win the Super Stock Magazine Invitational. The team had the Detroit asphalt figured out, as I don’t think I ever saw Reyes and the Hawaiian lose a race at Detroit.
Demonstrating how much things have changed, the mini-Charger wasn’t legal for NHRA Funny Car competition. Back then, the sanctioning body maintained that funny cars needed to have measurements that matched an actual car. Lengthening the front clip and moving the wheelbase around was acceptable, but all that narrowing, chopping and channeling was too much for NHRA. Too bad that reasoning doesn’t persist today.
To comply with the rules, Leong built a new full-size Charger for 1970. Reyes immediately won the Winternationals, confirming that Leong’s team had learned a thing or two since they wrecked at the ’69 ‘Big Go West.’
Reyes went on to drive other cars and eventually campaigned his own Baracuda funny car. Reyes was seriously injured when one of the ‘Cuda’s front tires blew out at speed. Reyes still attends many racing events to this day, wheeling through the pits in a wheelchair.
Leong spent another two decades running the Hawaiian, then headed up Don Prudhomme’s multi-car team.
There were many different Hawaiian funny cars, but the mini-Charger remains my favorite. Leong always took pains to see that his cars looked great, but to me, the colorful paint and graphics of the ’69 model remains far above the rest.