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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

Two things changed that spring of 1963: GM's withdrawal from racing and Chrysler's direction under new president Lynn Townsend. With GM no longer pushing guys like Fireball Roberts, Ned Jarrett, and Junior Johnson to the top of the Grand National charts, Townsend doubled-down on all participation, authorizing the re-emergence of the hemispherical cylinder head on the 426 wedge block as a NASCAR nuke. Meanwhile, Ford, whose market share was large enough to justify multi-million dollar outlays in everything from international F1 to rally racing during this era, threw its engineering capital behind a development program it called Total Performance. That cauldron went red-hot in 1964, when former GM contract racers such as Bill Jenkins, Hayden Proffitt, Don Nicholson, Ronnie Sox, and Mickey Thompson got new bosses, new budgets, new fans, and new equipment from Dodge, Plymouth, Mercury, and Ford.

Under these conditions, FX quickly became a melding of rapid development from Detroit, aided by an exploding aftermarket business. The NHRA tried to keep the lid on the pot, but it was "no can do, Wally," especially in areas of the country where these cars were beginning to eclipse the fuel dragsters and prewar gas machines in terms of attention and adulation. Paperwork filed by the factories to and from North Hollywood showed there was keen interest in both the letter and spirit of the rules. However, by mid-1963, GM-associated racers who did not have access to updates simply quit trying to abide. In the South, it was match racing with basically no real rules; tracks just wanted racers to race. In the urbanized Northeast and Midwest, former FX-legal cars got tweaked more and more each week, as the stakes grew larger.

On the West Coast, door-car racing took another step forward in 1964, when Dodge and new rival Mercury both created factory exhibition cars that were supercharged and running in fictional S/FX or S/XS classes. One of these, a 1964 Comet Caliente, built by former dragster great Jack Chrisman, swilled nitro and heralded the start of the real schism between what constituted a "stock" machine versus an all-out race car sheathed in modern skin. Pontiac loyalist Arnie Beswick followed suit in a new blown GTO, and the war escalated. Though not FX legal, this change aptly foreshadowed the future.

Politics took the forefront. Letters and telegrams between Detroit and the NHRA's Jack Hart and tech master Bill "Farmer" Dismuke are rife with terse answers, personal appeals, and questions about competitors' legality. Ford was playing FX with Galaxies. However, within three months of the Mustang being released for sale that following spring, they were requesting approval of a 427 version for the Nationals, as well as for a 427 Falcon, both forms presenting problems, due to the NHRA's preoccupation with ballast placement and weight distribution.

On the other side of town, Chrysler Engineering decided to throw caution to the wind and really experiment after playing with wheelbase modifications in its Super Stocks. After Indy that year, Dick Landy (California) and Bill Flynn (Connecticut) created wheelbase-adjusted A/FX Hemi cars with the straight front axle from the A100 pickup truck. Though the stick was legal as a production part, the NHRA immediately placed the cars in the Gas and Altered classes. Hearing about Ford's short-wheelbase 427 monsters, Chrysler's next logical step was to move all the wheels as far forward as possible to get as much rear overhang as possible, thus thumbing its nose at the 2 percent wheelbase change that the NHRA had already imposed. With a wheelbase of just 110 inches, this wild entry was built for the '65 season and was funded to the hilt when Chrysler dropped out of NASCAR, after France had outlawed the Hemi because it wasn't a production street engine.

One look at this beastie, and the NHRA balked, labeling it exhibition or B/Altered. Ford Motor, with a new 427 single-overhead-cam engine coupled with the popular Mustang ready and approved for FX, complained fiercely. At the first event of the year, the AHRA Winternationals in Arizona, announcer Jon Lundberg reportedly coined the term "Funny Car" as the new Mopars came to the line. Though Chrysler gamely built four legal A/FXs for the NHRA Winternationals the following weekend—at no small expense—it authorized all of them for the full treatment soon after, effectively thumbing its nose at the NHRA rule book.

This one change resulted in outlaw status, and change was in the cultural wind. President John F. Kennedy had been shot dead, there were riots in major cities, and there was a growing awareness that self-actuation was a wonderful alternative to the straight world. For car guys, this moment was the cutting edge of progress, and Chrysler frankly changed everything right there. Surely, the Mopar engineers were not radicals; they simply followed the path that proved the most functional, a focus that resulted in transformation they had not imagined at the onset.

By Geoff Stunkard
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