Jeep Funny Cars -- The Outsiders
By Danny White
The golden age of American drag racing was the sixties. Creativity was not discouraged during this era. The funny car was only a couple of years old in 1966 and things were wide open. You could have cars like the Bronco Buster with an all aluminum chassis that weighed less than 1,000 pounds. You could have cars like Don Garlits' Dart II, a funny car body mounted on a dragster chassis. There were real Fords, Chevys, Pontiacs, AMCs, and of course the Chryslers.
That brings us to the subject of our story, the Jeep funny car. The Jeeps were born in 1966 during a whirlwind of Funny car creativity, when you could be state of the art this week outdated the next week. They were met by indifference by the fans and the press, and they scared the other racers by their ability to put up big numbers. This led the NHRA to outlaw them even before there was an official class for funny cars.
The first Jeep funny car was created in late 1966 in California by veteran dragster racers Ed Lenarth and driver Roger Wolford. The Secret Weapon was nothing like a stock Jeep was meant to be. The car was one of longest wheel base cars of its era. It was stretched outrageously at the door opening. The engine sat under a sheet of aluminum covering the cockpit where the stock driver was meant to be. The homemade car had a scary looking roll cage in which Roger Wolford set behind the rear axle. The wild 1966 Southern California scene included cars like the topless Canuck Chevy II roadster of Dale Armstrong, the Flying Dutchman Coronet, the original Vicious Vette, and the Bronco Buster. Unique funny car engineering had hit its apex, one might say.
In one of its first appearances, the Secret Weapon was beaten three straight by Lew Arrington in the Brutus GTO. That would not last for long. Soon, the car hit its stride. The Secret Weapon could run with any funny car of its era, which struck fear into the hearts of the other racers. NHRA decided in early 1967 to outlaw Jeeps and other truck based funny cars along with aluminum frames. The powers to be at NHRA were solicited heavily by the other factory camps to do this to the Jeeps. The Roger Wolford car did manage to run the ‘67 NHRA Winternationals at Pomona before the axe fell.
The Secret Weapon was an ugly duckling at best with its camo paint job and spartan looking engineering. The biggest problem the Wolford & Lenarth team had was consistency. The car would blow the tires off on one pass, break the transmission on the next, then set low ET, or stand it on end. The team went on tour after being kicked out by NHRA. Running the AHRA Winter Nationals at Beeline, the car went out early then came back to run a test run and almost set low E.T. at 8.27. The car finally made it to Maryland's Cecil County Dragway that summer for the Super Stock and Drag Racing Illustrated Funny Cars Nationals, one of the biggest funny car races of the year. The team went out in the second round after making one full run out of six tries all weekend. The other runs included a broken transmission, a hit guardrail, and a grass mowing wheelstand.
The team managed to win the Cars Illustrated Funny Car Nationals. The car ran a known best of 8.03 and 180 plus, but by the end of 1967 the Secret Weapon tour was over. The team separated with Roger Wolford going on to drive cars like the Mako Shark Corvette and the Wild Breed Cougar. Ed Lenarth was not done with Jeep funny car scene. He latter teamed with Secret Weapon Jeep sponsor Brain Cachuna on the new factory made Holy Toledo Jeep.
Ed Lenarth went from tuner to driver for the next couple of years to become a West Coast match race mainstay. The car had a state of the art chassis now and a powerful Chizler 392 for power. But by 1968, aerodynamics had started to become more important in funny car racing. Though there were scary adventures in testing these theories in drag and downforce, the all yellow Holy Toledo was as slick as a brick. The car ran a known best of 7.37 and 197 miles per hour, amazingly before ending up in the growing sand drag racing scene in Southern California in the seventies. The car had no major wins, and was at best a middle of the field runner. Lenarth walked to the beat of a different drummer: he next tried a rear engined sidewinder chain driven funny car. Test runs were made with a dragster body and Lenarth soon retired from drag racing.
Gene "Conway" Ciambella in the incredibly frightening Destroyer.
Drag Racing Memories photo
In 1966, Gene Ciambella was known as a superb racing transmission builder and a top racer in the blown supercharged gasser wars in Southern California. He then did an about face and went funny car racing. He was so serious about this that he even changed his last name in trying to lure potential sponsors. He chose the Jeep to be unique and to stand out from the crowd. Ciambella chose the last name Conway from Tim Conway who was in the television show McHale's Navy to try to lure non automotive sponsorship. The car looked more like a Jeep than the Secret Weapon or the later Holy Toledo. The all-silver Destroyer had a stock back end and a stretched front end with an open engine for all the god fearing world to see.
The Destroyer, like the original Secret Weapon, was home built with a roll bar that would be hard pressed to pass tech for a Super Pro car today. Conway drove the car out in the open wind in a ram rod straight driving position, and drive he did. The car was a major player in 1967 when it ran consistently. The car would wheelstand sometimes and act up due to bad aerodynamics. It also had the usual automatic transmission problems of the day. The car was the most successful Jeep funny car of all time. The Destroyer won many match races and open races over the best that Southern California had to offer. But the Jeep was just a flash in the pan. Conway soon had a new Firebird in 1968. He got rid of the Jeep but the new last name stayed. Conway would later go to fight the Corvette Curse in the early seventies while gathering more wins.
The Destroyer was sold to SoCal racer Ken Coleman in 1968. Coleman ran the car under his own name in local funny car match races, mostly at Irwindale and Orange County. He got the car to run 8.20's before money constraints got the best of him. Ken Coleman went bracket racing for much of the next decade, winning consistently in local Super Pro/Bracket 1 action. He won way more money with the Jeep than he paid for it!
Scottie Scott's Secret Destroyer borrowed from the names
of both top Jeeps. Fred Simmons photo
In the Southeast, there was a match racer named Scottie Scott who had his own Jeep funny car. The car was never a major threat on a national level, but it mixed it up with the best of the Division 2 scene. The car had several stages of development. Scott teamed with Bill Campbell in ‘67 and called the car The Rat Patrol. The car had a reported 348 W motor with a two port injector. It was good for low nines and high eights. In 1968, Scott took a cue from the Secret Weapon and the Destroyer and called the car the Secret Destroyer. The driver was now covered by an aluminum cowling that ran along the front body lines to cover the back. The car got a big block Chevy to boot.
The last known year for Scottie Scott was 1969. He had his name on the car now. The single hoop roll cage was gone and a space frame roll cage was now in place. The car ran a known best of 8.21 at 170 plus in local match race action. Scott became better known as the driver of the Atlanta Speed Shop Barracuda of Julius Hughes, in which he was a major player in Division 2 action.
Scottie Scott unloads for another day of action. Ernie Scott photo
The last Jeep funny car of the sixties was run by Randy Blackwell. Blackwell ran the injected nitro car in match races for a short time before getting a new legal Firebird A/FC. Blackwell is still racing in Texas with a unique S/G Fiero.
The seventies brought cookie cutter cars to funny car drag racing. The scene was full of Vegas, Pintos, Monzas, and Mustang IIs. There was no place for a Jeep to race anymore. The sand drag racing scene had many Jeep funny cars, but if you wanted to drag race one, where would you go? AA/FA racing had the wildest machines ever to traverse the quarter mile. By the late seventies, these cars had no official place to race and were outlaws to say the least. Jim West had been racing an AA/FA and AA/FC out of Arizona called Wild, Wild West for the latter part of the seventies. He mounted one of the high back sand drag racing jeep bodies in place of his Bantam body and went AA/FA racing. West got the beautiful, silver Rodeck powered Jeep to run 7.09 at 190 plus, where his Bantam had run 6.86 in outlaw AA/FA action.
The era of the Jeep funny car has been gone for 20 years but the Jeep controversy is still around today. Just last year at an IHRA race in Canada, Joe Lillenthal qualified his wild, blown, left hand steer roadster Jeep called My Vice with a 6.64 in Top Dragster. He was legal one minute and outlawed the next by IHRA tech officials. They say history repeats itself. In Lillenthal's case, it brought up memories of Conway and Wolford being outlawed by the powers to be. The Jeeps never caught on with racers, fans, or the racing organizations, but they made their mark in drag racing nonetheless.