This is a very historic and tragic picture from April 1965. It’s my Mystery Tornado GTO and Richard Petty’s 43 Jr. Outlawed Hemi Barracuda, just hitting the gas at Southern International Dragway in Dallas, Georgia. After about 400 feet, he crossed the centerline directly behind my GTO. He near-missed the corner of my rear bumper and came across my lane and directly into the crowd standing along the fence by parked cars and atop pickup truck beds. An 8-year-old boy was killed outright and many others injured. After the crash, Petty locked himself into the cab of his tow rig because things got very ugly. Dale Inman Petty’s crew chief of more than 30 years was helping keep things calm, but there was an angry and drunk crowd, who wanted to get at him. Inman had to physically take three guys down before the cops arrived and restored order. The strip organizers canceled further racing after that accident. (Editor’s note: At the time, Petty gave an interview to the Feb. 1966 issue of Car Life magazine and said, "I don't know what's going to happen; I feel strongly that we were not to blame, but the courts will decide that, I guess." A $1.5 million lawsuit resulted, lawyers settled, and Petty continued running an updated version of the match Barracuda through 1965 before returning full time to NASCAR track racing. The hulk of Petty's Hemi Barracuda was later junked but exists today after being exhumed by a collector in the 1990s.)
Seeing my success as a drag racer first, and my association with Pontiacs second, Lincoln-Mercury race honcho Fran Hernandez came calling in 1965 with an offer to run a new SOHC 427-powered Comet Cyclone in A/FX. After struggling as an independent with zero parts support from Pontiac for almost two years, I figured maybe the Mercury deal might be a good one, so I took it. But I soon realized that the SOHC was one complex engine and maintenance was a nightmare, what with different thickness lash caps needed to set the valves and two camshafts to synchronize. Plus, after a few months, spectators got used to the exotic SOHC cars and the novelty wore off. You can’t imagine the pressure I got from tracks to bring the Pontiacs. To top it off, the sodium-filled exhaust valves were failure prone. I lost two engines due to this and had to return the entire engines to Ford for repairs. For a while, I had Don Gay drive my supercharged Pontiac at the same event where I ran the Comet, but Lincoln-Mercury didn’t approve so I happily returned the car. It went to Paul Rossi. But I till got to pose with Dyno Don and Hayden Proffitt in a Mercury magazine ad, sipping victory champagne no less.
Bill Stroppe’s Long Beach, California, shop put the fleet of four SOHC Comets together, and I was first introduced to mine about one hour before registration for the 1965 NHRA Pomona Winternationals closed for the day. It wouldn’t pass tech due to thin welds on the rollbar. So I borrowed a welder in the pits, beefed the welds, and finally got approved. My first ever pass in the car was made during eliminations, and I was eliminated by Tom Grove in one of the 2 percent Plymouth altered wheelbase cars. Knowing I’d be doing a lot more match racing than sanctioned NHRA racing, I requested a spare SOHC motor to explore and make better, maybe with a supercharger. But getting one was difficult, so that was another thing that made leaving Mercury easy. Besides, on the match-race circuit, strip promoters would pay me three times as much to bring the Pontiac as they would the Comet.
In late 1965, I knew the Mercury deal was unwinding, so I completely transformed my 1963 Tempest Super Duty sedan into a full-blown altered wheelbase match racer called the Tameless Tiger. I did this because at 3,450 pounds the Mystery Tornado 1964 GTO was too heavy. It’s full frame and standard wheelbase was a drawback against the ever-lighter Ford and Mopar match racers on the circuit. So I kind of followed the Mopar pattern and pushed the Tempest’s rear axle forward a foot then moved the front wheels forward about 7 inches, secured with a basic straight axle and leaf springs. Notice how the rare aluminum front fenders were simply slashed for tire clearance. Since the Tempest was a unibody car, the end result weighed 2,800 pounds. By this time, I was having a really rough time getting enough Super Duty crankshafts and cylinder heads. The block situation was OK since standard 1965 and 1966 passenger car 421 Grand Prix and 2+2 units were strong enough as long as Super Duty or aftermarket steel caps were swapped i
Compare this picture to the preceding one, and you’ll see that Jess Tyree and I stretched the front fenders and frame for extra stability at high speed. The Tameless Tiger was nudging 170 mph and mid-8s on fuel, and the extra wheelbase helped keep it pointed straight. The original aluminum fenders gave way to a one-piece fiberglass flip-nose by Fiber Glass Ltd.—notice the sponsor logo added to the rear quarter-panel. This car covered most of the quarter-mile with the front wheels in the air. If I was ahead of my competition, I had a terrible time lifting my foot off the pedal, so as you might guess, the car got crashed several times. Depending on how bad and where it crashed, it frequently got repainted with different lettering to help give exposure to whoever helped me repair the damage. I was also appreciative of any sponsor who came on board with anything, even some oil or spark plugs; their name would go on the car.
After facing the 1966 tube-frame, flip-top Mercury Funny Cars with my steel-bodied 1963 Tempest and 1964 GTO, I knew I had to follow the same formula to remain competitive. My 1966 Star of the Circuit Gee Tee O match racer was completed in mid-October of 1966 and featured a Fiber Glass Ltd. body mounted to the lightly modified framerails that were taken from my 1964 Mystery Tornado GTO. The Star of the Circuit name stems from a dragstrip announcer who loved the paint, and also due to the fact I toured the car all across the country, from Cecil County, Maryland, to Bakersfield, California. At 2,800 pounds ready to race, it ran 8.50 at 170 mph at Rockford, Illinois, on its first pass. It wasn’t a flip-top car; the main body was bolted to the frame, but the one-piece fiberglass nose tilted forward for access to the front of the nitro-burning Pontiac motor. I still got in and out through the doors, which were hinged like a normal car. Serious engine work required removal of the tinwork inside the car, since I drove from the back seat area. In this shot, I'm racing Al VanDer Woude's Flying Dutchman Hemi Dart roadster at Lions. Pappy Hart knew how to get the word out. I was never there with anything less than a packed crowd in the stands.
For 1968, Pontiac radically restyled the GTO body, so I kept up with an all-new car, the Star of the Circuit II. It was my first true flip-top Funny Car. The one-piece fiberglass body was made by Fiber Glass Ltd. Under the skin was a copy of the round tube frames being made by the Logghe Brothers but with some of my own ideas. This picture shows the car before it had ever been down the track. I was on my way to the weeklong NASCAR Daytona speed weeks drag event in 1968. Each year, I stopped in Atlanta, at Ron and Joan Garwick’s home to do some final detailing. Our parents were good friends, and we grew up on nearby farms before he moved to Georgia. No doubt, his neighbors got a kick out of seeing my match race Pontiacs appear every year in their backyards for a few days.
I got talked into racing the Boss Bird on dirt at a few state fairs against quarter horses and pulling tractors. The course was about 300 feet long, and the promoter set it up in front of the main grandstand. I loaded a bunch of ballast and replaced the slicks with knobby snow tires. I won, but it was close. This tractor is one of many I raced. Notice the carbureted Chevy big-block and International Harvester radiator shell. I’ve always been a fan of IH tractors.
I ran everybody from Dyno Don to the Ramchargers in the 1966 GTO. Despite their use of Hemi heads and overhead camshafts, my "obsolete" Pontiac gave them all fits. By this time, I was using a 428 Pontiac block but with 1963 SD heads and cranks, since they were still the best parts available. My fans loved it when I led the more powerful Funnies to the finish line, which happened a lot. Here’s a late-1967 matchup between my 1966 and Doug Cook in the Stone, Woods, and Cook Dark Horse 2 Mustang at Green Valley Dragstrip in Texas. Cook was an independent racer like me. That meant zero factory support. That explains why he ran a 1958 Chrysler Hemi in his Mustang. There’s no way a Ford-subsidized driver could get away with that. A little bit later, I was at Alton Dragway in Illinois coming back down the return road when I saw Doug’s Mustang get airborne going through the lights. He got banged up pretty good, and it was quite a while before he was healed enough to drive again.