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Fords And Mercurys Were At The Center

Ford's involvement in organized drag racing grew out of its involvement in disorganized drag racing, which dates back practically to the beginning of the automobile. Of course it wasn't called drag racing then - no one is sure where the term originated.

All that is known is that Americans in the first half of the twentieth century were a pretty aggressive bunch - a quality that dovetailed nicely with a soaring passion for automobiles. Matching one's automobile against another to see which was fastest was a natural extension of the national machismo. There were no prescribed rules for these impromptu encounters; but since racing on public thoroughfares was severely frowned upon by the authorities, the contests settled into brief tests of acceleration.

Thus the seeds of modern drag racing were planted. The sport, if you could call it that back then, grew in popularity because it invited amateur participation and was a true test of the product people drove on the street every day. It also became very clear to any number of carmakers that a reputation for quickness had a very favorable impact on sales.

Of course as the popularity of the Model T and the Model A grew, no small number of these competitions involved Ford products. As a result, most of the hop-up hardware that began to flow out of the fledgling speed equipment industry in Southern California, from companies such as Winfield, Cragar, Edmunds, Ruckstell, and Riley, was made for Ford products, and much of it was adapted for street use. Then, with the introduction of the legendary flathead V-8 in 1932, the domination was complete. Ford's unparalleled popularity during the prewar years naturally made it the focus of the hot rodders' attention once World War II ended, and the flathead V-8 became theengine of choice for hot rodders from the late Forties until the mid-Fifties.

Hot rodding and drag racing began to get organized. The Southern California Timing Association sprang up on the dry lakes of California's Mojave Desert, followed by the NHRA, or National Hot Rod Association. With the advent of these organizations, specific rules evolved as to how drag racing should be conducted - two vehicles, timed from a standing start, over a distance of 1320 feet, and so on. Again, Fords and Mercurys were at the center of it all because of their affordability and the ready availability of flathead V-8 power.

Not exactly blind to the impact hot rodding was having upon the marketplace, Ford's competitors were readying countermeasures. First came Chrysler with its powerful hemispherical combustion chamber overhead-valve V-8, later known simply as the Hemi. But the ultimate counterstroke came in the mid-Fifties from Chevrolet, in the form of its smallblock V-8 that quickly became the darling of the racing and the hot rod fraternity.

Seriously unhappy about being relegated to number two, Ford began a decade-long effort in the Sixties to restore its lost luster among enthusiasts. To this end, the company would successfully mount massive efforts to win the Indianapolis 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the Daytona 500. But these were events. There was still the matter of the street. If Ford was going to win respect on the street, it was going to have to do it through the racing venue that most directly related to the street: drag racing. And to that end, the company would have to substantially fortify the line of products it offered to racers.

In 1961, the 390-cubic-inch T-bird V-8 engine was prodded to 375 horse-power, then 401, for installation in the more affordable Ford Galaxie coupe. By 1963, Ford's famed side-oiler 427-cubic-inch V-8 and top-loader four-speed transmission were on the scene and the company was routinely turning out innocent-looking Galaxies with twin four-barrel carburetors and 425 horsepower under the hood. A few of these fleet-footed coupes were built as special lightweight editions in quantities just large enough to qualify them as production vehicles. In the hands of favored Ford racers such as Les Ritchey, Gaspar "Gas" Ronda, Butch Leal, and I-Iubert Platt, they ushered in the Super Stock class in NHRA drag racing.

The ultimate extension of the assembly-line racing car philosophy occurred in 1964 with the creation of the Ford Thunderbolts. These were basically midsize Fairlanes with the mighty 427 V-8 crammed under the hood. Better yet, the Thunderbolts were assembly-line-equipped with scooped hoods, aluminum bumpers, fiberglass bodywork, and racing slicks. At 3200 pounds, they could do the quarter-mile in twelve seconds at 120 mph, right out of the crate. Price: $3900. Their debut led to the creation of another popular drag racing class: the FX, or factory-experimental, category, although enough would be produced - an estimated 127 - to allow them to run in the Super Stock category. Thunderbolts would win six of seven NHRA divisional championships.

The high-water mark of Ford's effort occurred in mid-decade. With the advent of the wildly popular Mustang in 1964, Ford turned the operation of the Fairlane Thunderbolts over to capable privateers and began work on the most radical factory-experimental racers to that date. These were Mustangs that rolled off the assembly line minus hoods, front fenders, doors, all window glass, bumpers, engine and transmission, and were then shipped to Holman-Moody Racing in Charlotte, for prescribed modifications. The finished A/FX product could break eleven seconds in the quarter-mile at more than 128 mph.

Connie Kalitta
Big time drag racers, such as Connie Kalitta and Don Prudhomme were serious threats in the late '60s and early '70s when powered by Ford's SOHC big block engine.

At the same time, Ford's sister division, Mercury, was working with another stock car legend, Californian Bill Stroppe, to develop a similar fleet of Comets with lightweight components, including doors, fenders, trunk, instrument panel and window glass, powered by 289 or 427 V-8s.

Eventually this led chassis builder Ron Logghe and racer Roy Steffey to create the first tubular-framed A/FX cars, or flip-top Comets, with their tilt-up fiberglass flopper bodies. Because of their caricature-like appearance, Mercury racing boss Fran Hernandez used the term "funny car" to describe them. The phrase stuck, and soon became a familiar part of the drag racing lexicon.

As technology progressed in the form of more powerful supercharged exotic-fuel engines, better chassis, stickier tires, and so on, elapsed times, or ETs, began to drop-from the tens, to the nines, to the eights, to the sevens. Speeds quickly climbed from the 130s to the 170s, to well above 200 mph. And all the while, drag racing fans loved it.

As if that wasn't enough, Ford's massive single-overhead-cam 427 "cammer" V-8 entered the fray. The purpose-built overhead-cam racing engine had been ruled ineligible by NASCAR for stock car racing, but found a ready home among the drag racers, especially AA/Fuel Dragster racers such as "Sneaky Pete" Robinson, Connie Kalitta, and the legendary Don "the Snake" Prudhomme. Robinson's cammer-powered dragster took home Top Fuel Eliminator honors from the World Championship Finals in 1966 with an ET of 7.19 seconds, the lowest ever recorded at the time. It wasn't long before Don Prudhomme cracked the seven-second barrier at Bristol, Tennessee, winning Top Fuel with a low ET of 6.92 seconds and a top speed of 222.7 mph.

By 1967, the flip-top Comets had given way to newer, faster Mercury Cougars. "Dyno Don" Nicholson's dazzling candy apple red Cougar Funny Car (known as The Eliminator), also powered by the cammer 427, was a frequent winner in this category. Other popular Fords in those days were Gas Ronda's Super Stock Mustang, Tasca Ford's Bill Lawton-driven Super Stock Mustang, and the Canadian "Border Bandits," Barrie Poole and John Elliot.

Bob Glidden returned to racing Ford products in 1980. In NHRA ProStock, he dominate in Fairmounts and later in an EXP bodied car.

The goal of it all was, of course, marketing - to sell more product. But to make the promise of "Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday" happen, the street product sold in the dealerships had to live up to the promise made at the drag strip. The ultimate fulfillment of that belief was perhaps the 1968 Cobra Jet Mustang, powered by Ford's new 428-cubic-inch Cobra Jet V-8. Unlike its 427-cubic-inch predecessor, which was a conglomerate of expensive handbuilt racing parts, the 428 used easy-to-make production-line pieces to achieve its mission, which was, of course, to vanquish pesky Mopars, Chevys, and Pontiacs at the light.

But by 1970, it was all pretty much over. Safety, emissions, and energy concerns intervened; new corporate priorities emerged. High-performance bigblock V-8s quickly began to disappear, and the Ford Motor Company severely curtailed its racing activities.

A decade later, however, in a massive effort to pull itself out of the doldrums of the new-consciousness Seventies, Ford resumed its support of motorsports, with drag racing high on the priorities list. Thus began two more of Ford's historical drag racing partnerships.

Pro Stock racer, driver, and developer Bob Glidden had caught Ford's eye when he won a national championship in a Super Stock Cobra Jet Mustang in 1970, followed by Pro Stock championships in a Pinto in 1974 and 1975. From 1985 through 1989 he would win five straight Pro Stock titles out of an unprecedented total of ten. And by 1993 he would amass an amazing total of eighty-five NHRA national victories.

As Glidden was winding down his fabulous career in 1997, Funny Car champion John Force stunned the racing world by switching from Pontiac to a Ford Mustang after winning two of the first three races in the 1997 season. After an initial slump in which he went winless for twelve races, Force and his 7000-horsepower Mustang went on a late-season tear, winning four out of five races on the way to one more NHRA Funny Car national championship. Eventually Force would go on to surpass Bob Glidden's record for national titles. Force regularly runs ETs under 5.0 seconds and more than 300 mph for the quarter-mile.

But even with times dropping and speeds mounting, drag racing is one sport that has never lost touch with its heyday. Despite the psychedelic craziness and the pain of a war that nearly tore the country apart, there was a magic to the Sixties that still remains. It is celebrated by cruise-ins throughout America some forty years later, and lovingly recalled by the subtle clatter of a big four-barrel, solid-lifter 427 V-8 waiting for the light to turn green.

James Lee Ramsey. Drag Kings. 100 Years 0f Ford Motorsport. A Special Supplement to Automobile.

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