But the real star of that Irwindale event was a 1966 Mercury Comet, with its tubular chrome-moly frame, one-piece fiberglass flip-top body, built on a stock 116-inch wheelbase with stock proportions, and a fuel-injected Cammer engine and a three-speed automatic mounted amidships.
In an ignominious debut, Dyno Don Nicholson, first on the list to get one of the revolutionary new cars called Eliminator I, blew the body off and into pieces its first time in competition. Regardless, this completely revolutionary approach to replacing the acid-dipped, fiberglass-draped, altered-wheelbase first-generation of factory and homebuilt Funny Cars was done under the supervision of the late racing legend Francisco "Fran" Hernandez, a man who Charlie Gray calls "one of the most wonderful innovators I ever knew, regardless whether it was drag racing, circle racing, whatever."
Hernandez had been around drag racing since at least 1949, when he won the very first drag race at Goleta in his 1932 Ford. He was rumored to have been one of the first racers to experiment with nitromethane, and he and his car had graced the Apr. 1949 issue of Hot Rod magazine.
After a stint in the Navy during World War II, he worked at Edelbrock, then Offenhauser, and then at Bill Stroppe's Ford racing shop. He joined the Autolite spark plug company in 1959 to look after racing, record runs, and special events like million-mile tours on the same set of spark plugs. Ford bought Autolite in 1961, and Hernandez immediately went to work on the Autolite racing and endurance factions. By 1964, he had switched to Lincoln-Mercury as head of racing and directed the construction of the famous lightweight 427 A/FX Comets for Dyno Don Nicholson, Ronnie Sox, and Jack Chrisman.
It was Hernandez and a young racer from Ford's research activity named Al "Big Smoke" Turner who worked on the flip-top program, along with Ron and Gene Logghe, the drag racers who ran Logghe Stamping Company in suburban Detroit. Turner got that nickname from Connie Kalitta after Turner's dragster smoked its tires so hard at Detroit Dragway they had to stop the racing for a few minutes until the smoke cleared.
The Logghes had been making a dragster chassis as a side project to their Detroit stamping, welding, and assembly business ever since they had built Connie Kalitta's first front-engine fueler. They were strong, lightweight cars with some science in them, and they were the logical choice when Mercury went looking for Detroit co-conspirators in the project. At the time, Ford Division was utterly opposed to tube-framed, flip-top Funny Cars.
Al Turner, Jack Chrisman, and drag racer and supercharger manufacturer Gene Mooneyham sat in Chrisman's shop in California talking about racing, and Turner came up with the idea of a new form of Funny Car, based on Mooneyham's (and partner Al Sharp's) famous #554 1934 Ford coupe. That car ran a blown, fuel Hemi, set way back in the all-tube chassis, with the injectors at the base of the windshield, and had a centered driver position but on the outside; it looked like a stock 1934 Ford. The more Turner thought about it, he says, the more he thought it would work. It would have to work, because Lincoln-Mercury wanted nothing to do with altered-wheelbase cars; if it didn't look like a stock Merc, the company wasn't going to race it.
Hernandez had his hands full with the Comets for the East Africa Safari Rally with Bill Stroppe, a trio of Cape-Horn-To-Fairbanks Comets, the NASCAR Mercurys, and other programs, so he told Turner to look after drag racing while he was away.
Turner was made for the job, having built and raced gas diggers in Detroit since 1954. He took Top Eliminator on the opening day at Detroit Dragway, beating the legendary Setto Postoian with his 4-71 blown, carbureted Chevy small-block and had won the World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova, Illinois. He worked at Ford during the day and did crankshaft machining and balancing at a machine shop in the evenings to support his racing habit.
Turner had worked on the 427 wedge Comet race cars that Don Nicholson, Eddie Schartman, Sox & Martin, and Jack Chrisman raced, the 1964 versions having been built at Dearborn Steel and Tubing, and the 1965 cars having been updated at Holman & Moody. He devised a very stiff dual-shock-absorber rear suspension setup for the Comet fleet and included 50/50 front shocks to settle the cars down, and that worked. He went to Harvey Crane, who he had known for years, to get better camshafts, and he went to Carrillo to get better connecting rods.
Turner says, "The guys on the Ford Division racing programs were graduate engineers, but they never had any racing experience. I was a racer. I did what I would have done on my own cars. What they took six months to get done, I could get done in three weeks. Everybody would work with me because they wanted to get that Ford business. We did very well with Nicholson, Sox & Martin, Eddie Schartman, Chrisman, and the rest of our guys."
Turner says the tide shifted when Chrysler came out with the altered-wheelbase race cars. "Nicholson complained that he wasn't competitive anymore, so he modified his cars in 1965 with an altered-wheelbase chassis, an 18 percent engine setback, and when management saw it, they were ready to drop out of drag racing.
Turner pursued the idea of a stiff, lightweight chassis, the Ford 427 SOHC Cammer engine set well back and a one-piece fiberglass body as the new package. He built a balsa wood frame and a 1⁄25-scale 1966 Comet body to show the suits what the finished race car would look like. By building that model instead of writing a paper, he got the project approved and immediately thought of his longtime racing buddies, the Logghe brothers, to take on the new form.
Logghe Stamping assumed responsibility, promised utter secrecy, and agreed to not build customer cars for a year after the first ones were delivered, so that Lincoln-Mercury would have world-beaters for a whole season. They built the chassis in a separate room at Logghe Stamping.
Turner went to the Ford design studios, told the modelers what he needed, and they went to work smoothing out the clay buck of the 1966 Comet hardtop to a fine finish. Turner then had the clay model shipped to a fiberglass specialty company in Jackson, Michigan, that took the molds and laid up the first bodies.