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Factory Experimental: Pushing The Envelope, Detroit-Style

Though brief and chaotic, the FX period was the crucial component to late-model drag racing

By Geoff Stunkard, Photography by Bryan Flach

It was 1961, and as the decade erupted, acceleration became more than a wheel-driven thing. The crucible of NASCAR's Grand National series had been too much of a temptation, and a self-imposed ban on factory competition initiated in 1957 by the auto industry's American Manufacturers Association (AMA) quietly sank beneath a tide of cubic-inch displacement, advertising braggadocio, and potent personalities. Drag racing was a secondary force in this, to be sure, but it was certainly blipping the radar. By August of 1961, when the NHRA hosted its annual Nationals, the factories were earnestly focused on a simple premise: If you go faster, you sell faster.

In fact, a number of mid-season modifications were made to factory-connected Super Stock entries for the 1961 Nationals held at Indianapolis for the first time. These few cars fell into a new category NHRA created and termed O/SS (Optional Super Stock, with approved factory-authorized changes as those options). Incidentally, it was through the AMA arm of the Big Three that the NHRA, AHRA, and the other auto factories received all the formal classification information on new models. However, when the paperwork for those changes had not been filed properly with NHRA for the 1961 race, Stock Eliminator winner Don Nicholson's Chevy 409 and runner-up Arnie Beswick's Pontiac were disqualified. This impasse was the catalyst for what came to be known as Factory Experimental.

That term "experimental" was laden with mystery. In an era when the personal automobile was considered a most treasured purchase, emotion was firmly vested in the brand, along with a sense of pride that could border on violence in the right circumstances. Moreover, the idea of seeing the inside track of what might end up on the street was mighty heady stuff, indeed. Guys in white lab coats who could calculate trigonometry, read a slide rule, and understand chemical formulas were in back rooms under the cloak of secrecy, brewing up some secret automotive weapon that would "whoop them other boys but good!" The most visible of these cool nerds was the cabal of Chrysler engineers known as the Ramchargers.

Though the Dodge boys might have been moonlighting in the dyno rooms at Highland Park, Ford was getting just as serious. Indeed, it had fired the opening salvo in the 400hp battles with the 401-horse tri-power 390 in 1961, had been the first to drop the AMA clause, and continued to up the ante for nearly the next decade, culminating in the monster Boss 429 of the late 1960s Grand National battles.

Though it was first to dominate, General Motors actually would be a standard bearer only for the first two seasons of the FX era. An over-militant government against the corporate giant caused GM President Ed Cole to demand that all racing involvement cease in early 1963, thus limiting their technical evolution in the rapidly accelerating world of FX drag racing after that season.

In 1961, the NHRA decided that expensive late-model projects from Detroit needed a place where they were not racing coupes and high-boy roadsters in Gas, were not embarrassing the weekly customers in front of their girlfriends in Stock and Super Stock, and frankly, they needed a place where they could show off. For the 1962 season, the NHRA created three FX classes based on cubic-inch-to-weight ratios: A/FX was 8.99 or lower, B/FX rated 9.00–12.99, and C/FX was for 13.00 and higher (stock-class factoring was done on the advertised/adjusted horsepower-to-weight formulas). The important rules were pre-authorization and approval from NHRA on any desired changes from production…and no superchargers.

Each manufacturer had to file FX paperwork in advance to give the NHRA an idea of what they were doing. Then, the NHRA would bless the final combination for legality before the combination could run. For the first year, most of these entries were focused in two directions—bigger-than-factory-available engines in smaller cars like the Tempest, Lancer, and Chevy II, and specially released factory engine and body parts for what were now called Super Super/Stock type entries; these were S/S-legal models with mid-year parts changes. But by 1963, well-heeled racers usually had a legal car for Super Stock and a modified one for FX.

Tailing Mickey Thompson's sole Pontiac A/FX effort in 1962, when it had won the Winternationals and the Indy Nationals, the factory fielded several 421ci Tempest coupes in the A/FX division in 1963, as well as wagons weighted to run B/FX. There were also a handful of Catalinas built this way. These cars were so above the field in terms of potential and performance at Pomona in 1963 that the new Z11 427/425hp aluminum-panel Chevy Impalas and the lightweight Ford Galaxie fastbacks ended up in a one-race-only Limited Production class to prevent embarrassment, since the companies were lacking proof that the minimum number of 50 cars had been created for Super Stock legality. This season, Chrysler's new 426 Max Wedges were now playing the spoiler in Super Stock by sheer number, hauling off the SS/S Automatic crowns at will. The Ramchargers, which had been runner-up at the 1962 Nationals, also had FX on its mind.

By Geoff Stunkard
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