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NHRA's 50 greatiest drivers: 'Big Jim' Dunn

NHRA's 50 greatiest drivers: 'Big Jim' Dunn
May 23, 2001, 11:45 PM


#27 -- 'BIG JIM' DUNN

Over a period of 40 years, Jim Dunn drove a variety of cars that were the hardest to drive, and he was a winner in all of them.

He won in AA/A, AA/FA, front-engine Top Fuel dragsters, and Funny Cars (including two unique but squirrelly rear-engine Funny Cars he drove in the early 1970s). Dunn, who is still active as the owner and tuner of his Mooneyes Funny Car driven by Al Hofmann, has a career final-round record as a driver and tuner of 10 wins and six runner-ups at NHRA national events.

In addition, Dunn won the Bakersfield March Meet three times -- he won Top Fuel in 1969, and Funny Car in 1971 and 1980 -- and was Top Fuel runner-up in 1966 in the Saturday half of the show to overall winner Mike Sorokin. Dunn also was the Division 7 Top Fuel champion in 1969.

Dunn, possessor of natural talent, unknowingly trained himself for future success with his first three race cars.

Dunn had his first car in 1953 when he was 19 years old and was racing in Santa Ana, Calif. The car, powered by a nitro-fueled Lincoln flathead V-8, was so short that the Volkswagen body he and Art Chrisman found in a salvage yard completely covered the car. His second car was another short altered covered by an English-built Anglia body, which was ahead of its time.

"I thought it would be competitive in A/Gas against guys like Stone-Woods-Cook and John Mazmanian," Dunn recalled. "But when I entered it they said, 'It's a foreign body. You race with the sports cars.' "

Dunn's first NHRA wins came at the 1963 and 1964 Winternationals in AA/A with his third car, the Dunn-Merritt-Velasco supercharged small-block Chevy-powered Fiat. Dunn also won AA/FA at the Bakersfield March Meet those two years and lost only twice, with best times in the 8.9s at 171 mph.

After the 1964 season, Dunn convinced his partners to drop the engine into a dragster and compete in Top Fuel. He didn't stick with the Chevy engine long, however.

"I could leave on the Hemis because my car was lighter," Dunn recalled. "But I could only run about 20 percent nitro, and those Hemis would come around me every time."

His next car was a Woody Gilmore dragster with an experimental independent front suspension and Hemi power. That setup, thought to be valid at the time when tire spin was the way to get off the line, was soon replaced with a more conventional straight front axle and torsion-bar suspension. With that dragster, dubbed the Green Mountain Boys, Dunn was runner-up at the 1966 Winternationals to Mike Snively's Hawaiian.

Another Top Fueler, dubbed the Rainbow Car because of its multi-colored paint scheme, carried Dunn to victory in Bakersfield and to the Division 7 title in 1969. By this time, the popularity of the Funny Cars was usurping the exalted status of the fuel dragsters, increasing the amount of races and open qualified shows available for the floppers. This was appealing to Dunn who otherwise had to support his family and race car with his salary as a fireman in Los Angeles.

The early Funny Cars used Torqueflite automatic transmissions. Dunn saw them for what they were - short fuel dragsters - and built his first one accordingly; feather-light and with direct drive. It wasn't fast because of the short rear gear required by the direct drive, but it was quick because it was light. In 1971, Dunn won the Funny Car title in Bakersfield in one of his first races with the car.

"He was one of the guys you looked up to," said Bob Brooks, who raced against Dunn in the mid-1960s and is now owner of AFT Clutch Systems. "He was from the same era that spawned Don Prudhomme and Tom McEwen. They were the quarterbacks, the pretty boys so to speak, and Dunn was the down-and-dirty lineman."

Taking a cue from the new rear-engine Top Fuel dragsters, Dunn built the first of two rear-engine Funny Cars in 1972. With that car, Dunn was runner-up in Bakersfield, won the 1972 Supernationals, and won some divisional points races -- as seen in the 1972 movie Funny Car Summer. But that first car, and the one that followed, required that Dunn use all the driving skills he had learned during his formative years with the altereds.

"The car would go straight as an arrow four runs in a row, and on the fifth run it would turn left," said Dunn, who drove with his face against the windshield. "Another four runs and it would turn right. It was scary. It did things for no reason without a warning."

Dunn reverted to a more conventional front-engine Funny Car and drove until 1990, scoring runner-ups at the 1977 and 1979 Fallnationals in Seattle, the U.S. Nationals in 1981, a win in Bakersfield in 1980, and a victory at the 1981 World Finals, his final as a driver.

In 1991, he relegated himself to the role of tuner and has been just as successful.

He tuned his son, Mike, to four NHRA national event wins in Funny Car in 1990 and 1991. Later, Dunn took on the role of teacher to new Funny Car drivers Kenji Okazaki in 1992, and Frank Pedregon in 1998.

After hanging up his firesuit at the fire department where he retired as a Captain, Dunn tuned Okazaki to a runner-up at the 1993 U.S. Nationals and a 1994 runner-up finish at the prestigious Budweiser Shootout in Indy.

In 1997, his last year with Okazaki, they won in Englishtown and the Budweiser Shootout in Indy.

Dunn went on to win back-to-back national events in Columbus and Madison with Pedregon behind the wheel, who was driving a Funny Car for the first time in 1998. Later that year, tuning Randy Anderson's Funny Car, they were runner-up at the U.S. Nationals. With a new sponsor and with Pedregon back behind the wheel, Dunn won the 1999 U.S. Nationals.

Up until the last few years, Dunn, unlike many of his peers, achieved his success without major sponsorship. A lack of spare parts and a full-time crew put him in the role of underdog; a status he would openly use to his advantage.

"He would go over to Prudhomme or McEwen before a race and tell them that he didn't have anything and couldn't run, and he would ask them to take it easy on him," said Joe Reath, his former partner.

"I never felt like an underdog when I went to the starting line," Dunn added. "I had every part they had. I just didn't have the crew, or a pretty trailer, or a fancy truck. But my race car always has and always will have anything it wants, or I'll quit. It's like Prudhomme said to me one time, 'I'm getting tired of hearing this underdog. You've got everything that I've got. You've just got one of them.' I said, 'That's right, It's brand new when I race you. I may not be back next round, but I'm a killer son-of-a-gun in this round.' "

His unabashed love for the sport and the time he has spent drag racing -- he marked 50 years in 2000 -- has given Dunn the opportunity to reflect on what makes a successful driver.

"There are two kinds: steerers and drivers," Dunn said. "A steerer can get it down the track but doesn't know if anything is wrong. Drivers can get it down the track when it's not perfect -- they can pedal the throttle and know if the car is hurt.

"Good drivers do the same thing every time; they don't play games," Dunn continued. "But there also has to be some knowledge about what the car is doing.

"Kenji was the world's best leaver," Dunn added. "He had 100 percent concentration, but he was the worst guy to know if anything was dying. With Hofmann, I don't have to worry about that. He used to pay his own bills like I do. If you own the car, your billfold will bite you in the butt before the blower comes off."


NHRA's 50 GREATEST DRIVERS 50. Elmer Trett 49. Richard Tharp 48. Malcolm Durham 47. Billy Meyer 46. Ken Veney 45. Scotty Richardson 44. Dave Schultz 43. Frank Hawley 42. David Rampy 41. John Mulligan 40. Frank Manzo 39. Danny Ongais 38. James Warren 37. Edmond Richardson 36. Blaine Johnson 35. Terry Vance 34. Willie Borsch 33. Brad Anderson 32. Darrell Gwynn 31. Dick LaHaie 30. Chris Karamesines 29. Art Chrisman 28. George Montgomery 27. Jim Dunn


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