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.
The 1963 debut of the Z11 Chevrolets at Pomona found them in a one-race-only class called
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.
At the 1961 Indy Nationals, OS/S requirements and the disqualification of both the winner
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.
This is the Ramchargers 1964 S/S car after the Hemi was installed in the early spring, a c
The guys responsible for Funny Car? Certainly Ramchargers Tom Hoover (right) and Tom “Gray
The spirit of A/FX returned to the NHRA Nationals in 1969, where the likes of Ronnie Sox,
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.
At Indy, all hands were on deck for the first round of class, when Jack Chrisman’s hot Mer
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.
The Ramchargers had a legal A/FX entry in 1965, a Coronet that was adhered with the NHRA’s
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.
Here’s Ford’s legal entry for 1965 coupled with the new fastback Mustang body and the mons
Don Nicholson’s cars show the radical change of 1965. At Pomona, the car had a slightly re
Bill Hoefer gets on it at Pomona in early 1965. Hoefer used the whale Galaxie body and a s
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.
While the factories still backed many cars in 1966, independent racers got more involved,
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.
The 1977 return of A/FX as part of Comp Eliminator was highlighted with Ronnie Sox’s effor
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.]
Mercury was able to effectively demarcate the birth of the modern AA/FC design, when it in
Don Nicholson’s cars show the radical change of 1965. At Pomona, the car had a slightly re
Collector Jim Kramer owns the original 1965 altered-wheelbase Dodge that Pennsylvanian Bud