February 11, 2023


Still car-crazy after all these years

White runaway Challenger funny car

A scale mockup of the runaway funny car

Crew man saves the day! The Run Away Funny Car at Detroit Dragway

Crew man saves the day! The Run Away Funny Car at Detroit Dragway.

Not all the action happens on the drag strip. The story of the run away funny car is a prime example.

I was there to witness the following tale play out. It remains one of my most cherished race car stories. Improbable, yes. But I was there and watched the whole thing.

It was early 1970 something, and I was at Detroit Dragway for a Sunday afternoon Funny Car show. The track specialized in evening races, but this was a rare afternoon program.

As I strolled through the pits, I was filled with the familiar feeling that anything could happen once the cars lined up in the staging area.

Then I glimpsed a white primered flip-top Challenger. No lettering appeared on the sides, not even an oil or sparkplug sticker. I assumed it was a brand-new car, out for its maiden trip down the quarter-mile.

A surprising driver

The pilot was warming up the big Hemi and as I moved in close I was shocked when I recognized the man behind the wheel.

He was a familiar face at Detroit Dragway. He wasn’t from Detroit — or even from Michigan, but Gil Kohn booked the guy often in the ’60s and early ’70s. It was easy to understand why. He was consistently put on a great show.

The driver was well-known to his fans for his allegiance to a particular make of car and engine, neither of which were made by Mopar. Yet, here he was behind the wheel of a Hemi-powered Dodge Challenger. As the surprise faded, I started to appreciate the situation.

I was on hand to watch this famous driver make the first pass in a band new Mopar. The man was a funny car legend, and I would watch him make history by debuting a new Chrysler flopper.

I later found out that the Challenger wasn’t new. After a very successful season, the previous owners had painted over the body and sold the car.

Through a series of encounters, our hero had obtained use of the car and decided to see what he could do with it. He ended up renting the Challenger for the season.

The first attempt

Unaware of this, I wormed my way against the fence to observe what I believed was the first run of an all-new car.

Our hero made a weak burnout, which I interpreted as just working the kinks out of a new car. He backed into the bleach box and then just sat there. His crew appeared and tugged and pushed on the car, but it wouldn’t move. Eventually, his opponent in the other lane started to overheat so they gestured for him to make a single and our hero shut the Challenger off in the box.

After a chance to tune their cars in the pits, the race cars returned for round two. Once again, I anticipated seeing the hero lay down his first pass in a Challenger, but it was not to be. When they fired the car, it refused to go into gear. With the body raised, the crew tugged on the roll cage and front axle, but the car would not move. Another shut off.

I don’t remember who won that day. It might have been the Hawaiian, or perhaps Roger Lindamood. Both were consistent winners at Detroit in that era. After the funny car program ended, I spent some time watching the floppers being loaded onto their respective trucks and trailers. There was a considerable number of class eliminations still in progress, but the main show was over.

A nitro Hemi roars

Suddenly I heard the unmistakable din of a nitro engine cackling above the noise from the gasoline-powered class entries. I hurried in the direction and found the white Challenger sitting alone with the body up and engine running.

The driver was in the seat, in street clothes, a scrunched-up flat-top hat on his head. Two crew members crouched on either side of the engine, apparently trying to diagnose the clutch or transmission problems they had encountered earlier.

There were no other fans about, so I was free to get close to the ear-splitting noise and monitor their attempt to sort out the machine’s issues.

The driver reached down and tugged back on the shift lever. To this day, I can see his knuckles turn white as he pulled as hard as he was able. The lever didn’t budge.

Two hands are stronger than one

Unwilling to let the shifter defeat him, our hero reached down and heaved with both hands. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, I detected the lever was yielding to the pressure. As the driver continued pulling with all his might, the lever suddenly snapped back and the car went into reverse.

Naturally, our hero’s first move was to step on the clutch. The linkage was still causing problems, however, and the clutch refused to release.

The car started darting across the pit area. It was only idling, but even at an idle, a blown fuel Hemi can propel a 2,000 lb race car at quite a clip.

Our driver hit the brakes, but the pedal simply went to the floor. Whoever assembled the brakes had left off the c-clips which secure the caliper pucks, so the pucks pushed out, allowing the brake fluid to spill uselessly on the ground.

Our hero’s next move was to reach for the “kill switch.” In his long years as a funny car driver, the man had always placed the kill-switch in the same location. The former driver of the Challenger had other ideas, so when our hero reached for it, the switch wasn’t there.

Trapped in a run away funny car

Let’s recap. Our driver is seated in a funny car that is rushing along backward. The clutch won’t release, the brakes don’t work and he can’t find the kill switch. The seat prevents the driver from turning his head around, and with the body raised, he can’t see anything behind the car anyway.

Fortunately, the other floppers had saddled up and left. If it had been an hour earlier, the hot car pits would have been crammed with funny cars, haulers and trailers. The Challenger would have undoubtedly hit something or someone. With the hot pits fairly empty, our hero had room to sort things out.

At that moment I noticed a gorgeous Caprice convertible parked 60 or 70 feet behind the Challenger. It was brand new, painted in a lovely electric blue. I found out later it was just two weeks old. The white convertible top was down, which displayed an elegant white leather interior. It was a stunning car. And it was parked directly along the trajectory of the out-of-control funny car.

Alerting the driver over the roar of the nitro Hemi was an impossible task, and there didn’t seem much he could do about it anyway.

I fully expected to see the Challenger slam into the front fender of the Chevy, but a quick-thinking crew member had other ideas.

Averting a funny car disaster

Assessing the situation, the crew member quickly ran to the front of the run away funny car where the driver could see him. Using hand signals, he started directing the driver, just like he was backing the car up after a burnout.

Most drivers probably would have failed this test. They would have turned the wheel in the wrong direction, making the chance of a crash worse, or turned too quickly and spun the flopper out.

But our hero had been backing up race cars in response to hand signals for decades. He had spent years as a match-racer backing up through rosin, before graduating to bleach and rubber. There was no one better qualified to steer a car backward and he drove around the Caprice like a slot car on rails.

About the time the Challenger cleared the Caprice, the big Hemi died. I am not certain if the engine stalled, ran out of fuel, or if the driver ultimately found the magic switch.

The drama came to an end and the Challenger bounced along in relative silence, apart from some squeaking noise from the suspension.

The car ultimately ran into one of Detroit Dragway’s notorious yellow fences. The fence probably dated to the time the track opened in 1959 and it had endured more than a dozen Michigan winters. The design consisted of 8-inch diameter pilings driven into the ground, with 2x4s nailed across the top. Chicken wire was stapled to the 2x4s and all the wood was painted yellow.

The weathered fence pole tipped sideways when the car hit, and the chicken wire bulged and gave way under the impact.

The parachute was another saving grace. The chute protruded past the rear of the car and absorbed most of the force. I examined the body and saw a few stress marks in the fiberglass, but overall the Challenger was damage-free.

What would have happened if the driver had made an all out pass only to encounter the problems with the clutch, brakes and kill switch. I can only imagine.

The moral of the story is always check a rented race car out thoroughly before making a pass. And make sure you know where the kill-switch is!

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Tom Bonner