Ford in Top Fuel Racing retrospective

Danny's Corner 8/2/97 'Fords on Fuel--The Blue Oval in Top Fuel Racing' by Danny White For this article, I've chosen to write about Ford powered fuel dragsters that ran Top ...

Ford in Top Fuel Racing retrospective

Danny's Corner 8/2/97 'Fords on Fuel--The Blue Oval in Top Fuel Racing' by Danny White

For this article, I've chosen to write about Ford powered fuel dragsters that ran Top Eliminator, Top Fuel, or fuel match races. I, myself, am a big Chevrolet fan, but I do like a little variety to mix it up a little and to keep it from coming too monotonous. On the Drag Racing List Top Fuel files I found around 30 different drivers who raced Fords. The cars ranged from the flatheads that dominated early drag racing in the 1950s to the last blown nitro Ford of Chuck Seyler. Seyler's car last ran in 1991, so it's been six years since the final nitro Ford dragster ran anywhere.

The 1950s had flathead Fords and Mercurys on fuel dominating Top Eliminators in the early days of organized drag racing. Some of the following are cars that we know ran nitromethane before or during the nitro ban. Bob Alsenz ran a rail out of Lakewood Automotive, racing in California Top Eliminator events at tracks like Saugus, Santa Ana, etc. Alsenz had a rare Ardun cylinder head combination on his flathead. The unique combination ran one of the first nine-second elapsed times at over 150 miles per hour. Alsenz's official clocking was a 9.98 at an amazing 159.01 mph that came in 1957. Pat Atkins raced a rail for Harold Nicholson in early California Top Eliminator with a nitro Flathead. We do not have an elapsed time or speed clocking for him. Don Yates drove his Yates & Mikkleson 275 cubic inch flathead to a 10.59 at 144.85 in 1954 using low doses of nitro to win Top Eliminator.

John Bradley is known to many as 'Mr. Flathead' and rightfully so. He raced top fuel flatheads way into the early sixties at outlaw tracks that would sanction fuel races when NHRA thought nitro was a taboo subject. The Gene's Brake Shop car that made Bradley a fuel terror across the country ran 9.66 142.18 in 1957. Bradley had a dual-engine flathead dragster with S.C.O.T. blowers that ran 8.97 at 171.08. The car last ran during 1964 in outlaw fuel and flathead-only races. Stan Lomelino was Bradley's main rival during the 1960s. Stan also ran nitro in his flathead but probably should be listed somewhere other than the Top Fuel list in the DRL. We do not have an elapsed time for Lomelino, who last ran around 1965 in California.

Another Ford Motor Company motor used by Top Fuel racers technically wasn't a Ford at all, but its cousin, the Lincoln. The Lincoln could be bored and stroked to 540 plus cubic inches, 60 to 80 more inches than the closest Chryslers' 480 cubic inch range. The most famous of the Lincolns was Earl Canavan's 'President Lincoln.' The 'President' used a 540 inch Lincoln and saw action in New York, Florida, and finally Long Beach, California. Canavan raced the car on 100 percent alcohol and added nitro when he needed to. 'President Lincoln's' best clocking was an 8.20 at 166.05. Canavan won races in the Northeast and in Florida before getting in a bit too far over his head in California.

Ted Cyr of Downey, California, had Lincoln power in his 1960 Scotty Fenn dragster he simply called 'Lincoln.' Cyr drove and also put Jim Ward in the seat to win several races and to record an 8.00 at 187.50 clocking. The only other racer we know who used the heavy Lincoln engine was Marvin Schwartz. He raced a Garlits-chassised car on his own, blowing up several engines before Garlits hired him as a second team driver in 1965. We don't know what Starvin' Marvin's best clockings were due to the bad luck he suffered with the impractical Lincoln.

Several small block Fords raced Top Fuel all over the United States during the sixties. The Maryland-based Gunther Bros. took a 289 Ford out of a new Fairlane, spiced it up, and added injectors in 1964. The car was B/FD legal and raced NASCAR-sanctioned races and local NHRA Division 1 Top Fuel races. Don Gunther was the driver; the best times we've found for him are an 8.49 at 180 clocking at 75-80 Dragway. Steve Stephens of Quicksilver T/F fame made his initial splash in the Texas Top Fuel Circuit and Texas Top Fuel Cavalcade in an injected small block Ford B/FD in the late sixties. Stephens could run low eight-second times all day, so he was able to win a few rounds over less consistent AA/FD Chryslers who often went up in smoke on less-than-ideal Texas tracks.

The most technically advanced Ford to race Top Fuel was the car of Jim Busby. The Busby and Banard car had twin small block 300 cubic inch Indy Fords on nitromethane. Don Long built the chassis. In the car's only appearance, it ran 8.27 at 186.12 and easily won the best engineered award at the 1969 Pomona Winternationals. Hank Westmoreland drove that weekend. Jim Busby would leave drag racing and find his fame in road racing during the 1970s and 80s. This car was probably the most expensive Top Fueler ever built relative to the era in which it debuted. The final cost was pushed to near 100 grand (in 1969 dollars!) due to cost of the rare Indy Fords used in the car.

The best Ford engine to be used in Top Fuel was by far the Single Overhead Cam 427 (a.k.a. the SOHC).The SOHC was designed and built in an amazing 90 days by Ford engineers. It was based on the 427 wedge engine that had been on the market for a couple of years. The SOHC was built for one thing and one thing only--racing. The engine was impractical for everyday use, but on the drag strip and on the super speedways, the SOHC could run as well as any Chrysler or Chevrolet. The Ford Motor Company used its vast financial resources to get the best drag racers available and shared the technical information compiled among all the FoMoCo racers to make everyone better.

The best-known Ford Top Fuel Racer was Pete Robinson. Pete was an engineer by trade so he had skills outside the car that Ford loved because of the feedback he could give them. Pete was a hell of a driver to boot. An example of his driving credentials was his win at the 1961 Nationals at Indy. Robinson had several Ford Top Fuel cars. Around 1966, he was one of the last non-Chryslers to hold the official NHRA Top Fuel record. Pete was not afraid to try new things. An example of this was his 'vacuum cleaner' car. The vacuum device was mounted on the injector with the opening coming out in the middle of the frame rails. This unsuccessful device was supposed to propel the car into the five-second range.

Pete also tried putting a funny car combination in his car, using a C-6 automatic transmission behind the SOHC engine. He did get a best time of 6.80 with the C-6, which is a simply amazing considering he did it in the 1960s. Some say Robinson's experimenting was his downfall and lead to his premature death. Racing at Pomona, he tested a spoiler device mounted in front of the engine. Pete crashed and died instantly. The spoiler he had designed worked too well--it bowed the car in the middle. The front tires came off and wrapped around the steering, sending Robinson into the wall. Remarkably, his best ever time came on that very last run. The 6.50-second clocking occurred even while scraping Pomona's retaining wall for 150 feet.

Ford also sponsored racers like Connie Kalitta, Tom Hoover, Don Prudhomme, and others in an effort to unseat Chrysler as the best in fuel racing. Connie Kalitta raced Fords from '66 to '70, enjoying major success with the SOHC engine. He won both the AHRA and NHRA Winternationals in 1967. Connie's best time with SOHC was a 6.81 at 219. Ford later made him switch to the Shotgun 429, an engine with which neither he nor Ford had any success in nitro racing. Don Prudhomme drove Lou Baney's Ford car for two years with Ed Pink serving as crew chief and tuner. Don's claim to fame in the car was the first 6-second run at an NHRA event. After Prudhomme went out on his own again, future NHRA World Champion and Hollywood stunt man Kelly Brown replaced him. Brown ran the car in 1969, hitting best times of 6.73 at 213.

Lou Baney also had Tom McEwen drive a Top Fueler for him. The Brand Motor Special was very successful and built a national reputation for McEwen in 1966. Tom also drove a car called the Super Mustang for one race. The unsuccessful car was streamlined, injected, had an automatic transmission, and was lucky to run in the eight-second range. Tom Hoover and his father also had the SOHC engine for a while, running a best of 6.81 in 1968. Hoover also had the best luck with the Shotgun 429, running a best of 6.65 at 205. The Hoover car also was driven by Danny Darough, Ron Colson, and Dave Babler when Tom had a falling out for a time with his parents.

Other racers ran Ford top fuelers in the 1960s. The funny car team of Kenz and Leslie ran dragsters before the funny cars in 1964. The best times we have for Ron Leslie are 9.30 at 165. These times were recorded at a high altitude track and are not fully representative of what the team could run at sea level. Oregon-based Jim Cooke had an SOHC dragster that Bob Muravez drove. Bob, a.k.a. Floyd Lippencott, drove the car to a 6.98 at 220 at the 1969 NHRA Winternationals. The beautiful Starlite top fueler driven by Chuck Griffith is best remembered as a Chrysler-powered car, but finished its life with a Ford SOHC on board. We have no time for Griffith in this car. There also was one Ford in England. Tony Densham drove the 'Commuter' car to an 8.29 at 164 clocking during the sixties.

After Ford dropped out of racing and Pete Robinson died, activity in Ford fuelers pretty much died, too. In the last twenty years there have been only two teams to use Ford power in Top Fuel. Tom Jaros of Ohio raced in the late seventies and early eighties with an antiquated Ford SOHC dragster. Jaros' ran a best of 6.54 at 221 in 1983, most likely at Dragway 42's Grand Nationals. The last Ford Top Fueler ran from 1985 to 1991 and was owned by Chuck Seyler. Seyler had two cars, different tuners, different drivers, and even bought the engine block factory. Al DaPozzo got the car to run 6.02 and Al McFayden drove the second car to a respectable 5.51 at 255. If Chuck had a bit more time, money, and tuning savvy, the times may have gotten better before he decided to quit racing.

There undoubtedly were more Ford-powered Top Fuelers, but we haven't discovered them yet. If you know of any, drop us an e-mail with your new or updated information so we can get it on the DRL.

Danny White

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