September 8, 2022

Vintage-Nitro

Still car-crazy after all these years

Engine and Chassis of the Sundance Monza

Sundance Monza was lovely inside and out.

Russell Long driving Dennis Fowler’s Sundance Monza

The Sundance Monza, driven by Russell Long

I was saddened recently to hear of the passing of funny car driver Russell Long. Long was a great racer and an outstanding human being. Long got his start with nitro when Pat Brinegar tapped him to drive the Arkansas Razorback funny car. At only 19, it is claimed Long was the youngest licensed funny car pilot when he started. I don’t know about that, several other teenagers have made their mark in the flopper ranks. Regardless, Long was undoubtedly among the youngest nitro jockeys.

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After gaining experience in the Razorback, Long convinced Charlie Proite to give him a chance to drive Proite’s famous Telstar Charger.

How many cars did Russell Long drive in a season?

1973 was quite a year for the young lad from Mission Viejo, California. Long acquired seat time in Tom McEwen’s second car, Jungle Jim Liberman’s second team car, the Tom & Jerry Mustang, and Don Schumacher’s Wonder Wagon ‘Cuda. If that wasn’t enough, he took the opportunity to try his hand in Top Fuel, driving John Durkee’s Pegasus fueler. All the while, he still found time to handle Proite’s car, which was now known as the Pabst Blue Ribbon Charger. That is a pretty impressive resume, especially for a twenty-year-old who was only in his second year as a funny car driver! 1974 was a near repeat of ’73, with Long alternating behind the wheel of McEwen’s Duster, Liberman’s Vega, and Proite’s Blue Ribbon car. In addition, Long made a couple of passes in Poncho Rendon’s Frito Bandito AA/FD. On top of that, 1974 was the year Long was first offered an opportunity to drive Dennis Fowler’s Sundance Plymouth Satellite.

Enter the beautiful Sundance Monza

Although he still flirted with Proite’s Charger in ’75, Long became the permanent driver of the Sundance. Fowler constructed a new car for ’75, cloaking the chassis with a slippery Chevrolet Monza shell. Fowler and Long were trendsetters. They had one of the first Monza funny cars, and in the next few years, Monzas would dominate the funny car ranks. Fowler wasn’t a man to skirt corners. The new Sundance was a first-class piece both in appearance and equipment. Some have declared the Sundance Monza was the most beautiful funny car ever assembled. That is a subjective call and there are several other contenders, including the immaculate Imperial Kustoms Charger. Still, Fowler built the Sundance with jewel-like precision. Despite its show car appearance, it was a competitive flopper. Long ran several national events with the machine, and in between, he joined the Coke Cavalcade of Stars.

A regular on the Coke Circuit

The Coke Circuit raced hard, at tracks that alternated between excellent and second-rate. Long was in the thick of things, and Sundance gathered fans wherever it ran. 1976 saw Long wheeling the famous Chi-Town Hustler. Nothing says you are on top of your game than driving for Austin Coil and the Hustler team. But he wasn’t finished with Fowler. Over the next several seasons he drove the Sundance car, which was now a Plymouth Arrow. While we are name-dropping, we have to include Billy Meyer, who chose Long to drive his SMI Motivator Camaro when Meyer fell ill. To indicate Long’s willingness to try anything running on nitro, he was listed as the driver for George Britting’s T-Bucket at the 1977 Fuel Altered Nationals. Apparently, he delved into drag boat racing a time or two as well. That would be an extraordinary career, but Long managed to crowd it all into six brief years.

From Funny Car Pilot to Missionary

He retired from racing to run a backhoe business. But his real interest was the mission field. When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti in 2010, Long was already on the ground with missionaries from the Mission Viejo Christian Church. They were assisting with an orphanage in Port-au-Prince when the quake struck. According to Long, he and his fellow servants endured complete pandamonium for several days but managed to keep the orphans safe. Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor, spelled-out Long’s adventure in Haiti and the harrowing flight out of the country. You can read the story here. I am glad I had an opportunity to watch Long make passes in several of these famous cars. Every one of them. were top-notch machines, but I confess the Sundance Monza is probably my favorite. Fair winds and following seas, Russell Long!

Tom Bonner