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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

In comparison, the Mustangs, though sporting altered wheelbases and a healthy measure of aggression, appeared more respectable, even a little plain, and that included NHRA-legal A/FX, which the Fords dominated in 1965. But, as a class, FX now played second fiddle to whatever contraption showed up to race each weekend. The factories drew battle lines and demanded their sponsored entries not race the other company's products. At the start of the season, Ford and Chrysler entries were banned by corporate edict from racing each other. This finally changed due to pressure brought from promoters, the media, and the racers themselves, but that did not prevent a plethora of monster wheelies, fuel injection (which was not legal under FX rules), nitro and other fuels, fires, gold dust, and arguments real and imagined. When C.J. Hart discovered that this stuff made the turnstiles spin at the dragster stronghold of Lions, the West Coast was summarily smitten. When Super Stock & Drag Illustrated magazine had a near-riot at Pennsylvania's York US30 track in early August after 25,000 fanatics jammed into the little airport-turned-dragstrip for a one-night show, legal FX had technically passed from the spotlight of drag racing. At Indy in 1965, the nastiest stormers, blown and on nitro, ended up playing with the big dogs in B/Fuel Dragster.

In 1966, the NHRA found there was little to show for the once-premier category. It dropped back, punted, and created a new group of classes it called XS, for Experimental Stock. There was no need to file paperwork here; rules were based on a cubic-inch-to-weight formula and type of fuel used, ranging from Unlimited Development (U/XS) on through gasoline-powered categories ranging from A to E. Though at first deemed illegal for NHRA racing, Mercury's new Comets, using a Logghe Stamping welded tube chassis fitted with a flip-top fiberglass body pulled right from the factory styling plug, found a home there as well as the AHRA, which had become a true rival to North Hollywood. So did the even funnier Chryslers, which were now pushing injected, and eventually supercharged, fuel on a severely altered chassis design, and the Mustangs, whose noses had been extended in the interest of better performance and safety, becoming true Funny Cars, as well.

In match racing, Funny Car had stuck, but the NHRA's XS categories also allowed the independent racers a place to race in the big leagues. Frankly, those events were not as important as the week-in/week-out possibilities afforded by touring, and the money was better in the NASCAR drag racing series, which had a 2,600-pound Super/Unlimited Stock Formula 1 (S/US-1) division just for door cars. After all, at the NHRA's big shows, cars like these ended up racing against Altered and Gas entries in the higher-horsepower eliminators after class racing was over. Fame was fleeting there. Therefore, big-buck independent events and match racing were the focus of most build-ups and not in formal competition.Oh, it was still experimental…and increasingly dangerous. Frankly, what evolved was not even close to what FX had been, nor did it reflect what was sold off showroom floors. Paradoxically, while XS went insane, the new cars available to anyone were styled and built for performance—Hemi, Rat, and side-oiler entered the popular lexicon. After Dick Landy had a big transmission fire in mid-1966 testing, Chrysler decided to let it all go.

The NHRA wanted to keep romancing Detroit, as well, and created a separate category in 1967 called Super Stock, which was fully isolated from what had become the Junior Stock/Stock Eliminator divisions. While a handful of factory drivers stayed with the Unlimited class, Ford and Chrysler refocused on Super Stock in 1967, and even GM met the minimum 50-unit production numbers with ZL1 Camaros and 396 Novas.

As a result, the three FX classes were cancelled. Many former FX racers now made waves in Street (later Modified) Eliminator, as well as in the Super Stock wars. Indeed, by Indy in 1969, these drivers were now pushing the FX envelope in spirit and were racing in the Gas and Modified Production classes with factory assistance in heads-up-type, match-race stockers. This development and an aggressive push already started by the AHRA's Ultra Stock division would give way to a long private meeting with the NHRA at the conclusion of the '69 U.S. Nationals with the goal of creating a heads-up door class for the '70 season. It was called Pro Stock.

FX died for 10 years but was revived again in 1977 with the plethora of former Pro Stockers now flooding the Modified ranks. The indexes were now pounds per cubic inch at 5.5 pounds (A/FX), 7.5 (B/FX), and 9.5 (C/FX). Ronnie Sox raced in A/FX in 1977 in a Hemi Colt that the Rod Shop backed and which was to have been driven by Don Carlton, who had been killed in a testing accident that July. Though it was no longer the harbinger of the future it had once been, the FX mystique remained.

Of course, we now know that Funny Car, Pro Stock, and eventually Pro Modified and the modern ADRL all spawned from that handful of earlier seasons. For people who see drag racing from a long-term spectrum, FX conjures up a time of dreams and a space of infinite possibility, when hard work and sound thinking answered, "Who says you can't do that?" quite visibly. It was indeed an experimental season that not only worked too well, but also ignited the chain reaction that is modern full-bodied drag racing, today.

[Some text excerpted from unpublished book manuscript by Geoff Stunkard. 2013 All rights reserved.]

By Geoff Stunkard
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