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Sun, 17 Dec 2017, 08:36 AM

Homegrown Top Fuel Dragsters Part IV
By Steve Reyes
Photo copyright 2017 Steve Reyes

Now for something a bit different in this segment of "Homegrown Top Fuel Cars;" the focus is on the Cheetah top fuel team of the mid-late 1960s. This Sacramento-based race team brought the top fuel team concept to Northern California with its Cheetah I and Cheetah II top fuel cars. Originally, the Cheetah was a replacement for Bob Sparboro's Renegade AA/FD which crashed at Sacramento in 1965. I first saw Sparboro's Cheetah in late 1965, early 1966 with journeyman Southern California driver Wild Bill Alexander. After a few lackluster seasons, Sparboro had other projects so the Cheetah went up for sale. That is when Howard Cameron, John Naify and the Rapadas brothers stepped in with the cash to purchase the car and the Cheetah left its Alamo, California, home and headed to Sacramento with its new owners. Cameron and the gang gave their "new" racer a makeover and then the Cheetah was reborn and ready to hit the quarter-mile.

Now that they had a top fuel car ready to rock and roll, they needed a driver to make it win. The team set their sights on a young Gary Ormsby who was driving the Vagabond AA/FD. He was from Oklahoma, but now worked in a Sacramento Chevy dealership parts department, gathering parts for customers on roller skates. Since the Vagabond team did not have the finances to race every weekend or at every top fuel event in Northern California, the young Gary Ormsby was happy to find a car where he could spend more time in the driver's seat. Gary left the Vagabond team to become the Cheetah I hero driver. The team was set to terrorize other top fuel teams in Northern California in 1967.

After this, things get a little confusing, at least for me (let's hope I have it right). The Cheetah II car was owned by Ron Welty and driven first by Cox and then by Gary Matranga. The number two car was not around long because at the PDA race at Fremont in 1968, Matranga not only crashed the Cheetah II but also crashed Jim Guy's AA/GD. This must be some kind of dubious record but at least he walked away from both crashes. It didn't take Welty long to have another Cheetah back on the race track. This time the car was owned by Ron Welty, Warren Smith and John Cox and called the Cheetah II. I would have thought it would be the Cheetah III, however, it was like the Matranga driven car never existed.

Johnny Cox, a top fuel veteran driver, out of Sacramento, did the driving of the Cheetah II. He drove one of the most beautiful AA/FD's ever to grace the quarter-mile from 1964 to 1965. The Starr, Cox and Hutchinson AA/FD was a full-bodied fuel car with a beautiful purple paint job with gobs of chrome on the engine. It was very much a show and go AA/FD.

While Cheetah I was mowing the competition down at local top fuel events, the Cheetah II had its share of engine issues and never did perform at full potential. There were a few fans and racers that were in awe over the length of the second car since it was the first 200 inch wheelbase car in Northern California.

From what I can tell, the Cheetah gang had a lot of fun in the three full seasons they raced. Ormsby left the team to race his own Shoemaker chassised AA/FD in 1970. Ken Machost replaced Ormsby in Cheetah I and ended up crashing the car. To be honest, I really don't know what happened to the Cheetah II. I do know the Cheetah name is still being carried by the Cox family's nostalgia top fuel car driven by Cox's son Terry. It is tuned by Johnny Cox and according to my count that is Cheetah IV. Kudos out to Henry Walther for his help in gathering the information on these crazy Sacramento racers!

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The Cheetah I started out as a replacement for the crashed Renegade AA/FD in 1965.
The then owner was Bob Sparboro and the temporary driver was Larry "Shorty" Leventon.

Southern California journeyman top fuel driver Wild Bill Alexander became the Cheetah's
driver in 1966 and drove through a lack luster season.

After Howard Cameron, the Rapadas Brothers and John Naify purchased the Cheetah.
They went out and hired young gun Gary Ormsby to drive. The team then terrorized
the Northern California top fuel racers.

John Cox and Gary Matranga drove Ron Welty's Cheetah II for about a year. Then in 1968, at the
Fremont PDA, Matranga crashed the Cheetah II. Not being finished that weekend, Matranga also
crashed Jim Guy's AA/GD, making it a double header for Matranga. At OCIR, Ken Machost replaced
Gary Ormsby in 1970. Ormsby went off to race his own top fuel car. Machost didn't drive the
Cheetah I very long, as he crashed the car.

Ron Welty, Warren Smith and John Cox replaced the crashed Cheetah II with an all-new
200-inch wheel base fuel car. At the time, it was the longest top fuel car in Northern California.
The car ran okay but never lived up to its hype.

During the late 1960s, team Cheetah I and II posed for a rare group photo. Also, find Cheetah II
driver Johnny Cox with his son Terry in or about 1968. Terry is now in his 50's and wheels the
Cheetah IV nostalgia AA/FD and of course, his dad is tuning. Photos are from the John Cox Collection.

Crew member, the late Pete Greenwood gets the grit and rocks off of Cheetah I slicks.
Wandering through the pits at 1969 Sears Point opener is from left to right, John Naify,
a female Cheetah fan, Richard Hale and Howard Cameron, a.k.a. "Howard Horsepower,"

The Cheetah I was a sight to behold at night. Engine builder and tuner Howard "Horsepower" Cameron
knew how to tip "the can" and the Cheetah would run like a scalded dog down the quarter-mile with
driver Ormsby along for the thrilling ride.

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