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Tue, 26 Nov 2019, 11:13 AM

1969 A Year of Change- Part I
By Steve Reyes
Photo copyright 2019 Steve Reyes

Fifty years ago in 1969, I had just turned twenty-one years old and had the world by the short hairs. I was really starting to make a name for myself in the world of drag racing. Changes were taking place week in and week out for me both in my life and in the world of drag racing. The front engine top fuel dragster was still considered the king of the quarter mile. Those upstart funny car guys were having a lot of success with drag fans from coast to coast. The country was also in the midst of significant change as the Vietnam was raging and our newly elected thirty-seventh President Richard Nixon had inherited the Southeast Asian mess. It also seemed like the 60s flower child was giving way to radical college protesters of the day.

There was turmoil around the world and on the race track. Death claimed one of top fuel's most beloved driver's John "Zookeeper" Mulligan. Mulligan was not the only drag racer to lose his life at the wheel of the race car in 1969. Popular Southwest top fuel driver Jim Cagle lost his life while driving Ray Whisenhart's Texas Terror AA/FD at Oklahoma City Raceway. The funny car class lost two car owner/drivers including Dale Hubler, driving his American Charger Jet powered funny car crashed at Kil-Kare Dragway in Xenia, Ohio. The twenty-four-year-old Hubler died of his injuries. Then at Dallas, Texas, a two-car tangle left twenty-five-year-old Gerry Schwartz and his Ratty Cat Cougar dead and his AA/FC totally destroyed.

It wasn't all doom and gloom in drag racing. Clare Sanders driving for Jim Liberman won the first ever Funny Car elimination bracket at the 1969 NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, California. Two beautiful new "Super" race tracks opened their doors for racing, one in Dallas, Texas and the other in Sears Point, California. Troubles plagued the Texas track into closing but Sears Point is still going strong today.

Other tidbits from 1969, F-1's Michael Schumacher was born, Jennifer Aniston was also born in 1969. The last performance of the Beatles took place on the roof of Apple Records, the Let it Be recordings. Oh yeah, the most feared funny car in 1969 was Mickey Thompson's Blue Mach 1 driven by "The Flyin' Hawaiian" Danny Ongais and tuned by "Famous" Amos Satterlee. That blue Mustang took no prisoners in 1969.

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The most feared funny car in 1969 was Mickey Thompson's Mach One Mustang.
Danny Ongais drove and "Famous" Amos Satterlee tuned the all Ford funny car.
The biggest problem the team had in 1969 was when the car sucked a large bird
into the engine on a Friday pass at Bakersfield. A complete engine tear down was
in order to make the Mustang "feel better." Ongais won the event without the bird.

The year 1969 started out great for the top fuel team of Beebe and Mulligan with
a top fuel win at the 1969 NHRA Winternationals in Pomona, California. Then the
1969 season ended on a very sour note with an explosion and fire at the US Nationals.
The fire and ensuing crash took the life of driver John "Zookeeper" Mulligan.

Clare Sanders won the first ever Funny Car Eliminator at a NHRA national race.
Sanders drove for "team" Jungle Jim Liberman and his AA/FC Nova's.
Gone was the S/XS class. Now all funny cars were AA/FC to NHRA.

In 1969, Tom "Mongoose" McEwen raced in both top fuel and funny car for the first time.
McEwen purchased one of the team 'Cuda's from Candies and Hughes to go funny car racing.
At the end of the year, McEwen sold the 'Cuda to Julius Hughes of the Atlanta Speed Shop.
McEwen went on to be part of the Mattel/Hot Wheels Wildlife team with Don Prudhomme.

On his tour of the West Coast in 1969, Don Garlits and his Smothers Brothers Wynnscharger
won the first ever race at Sears Point, California. This was the final round as Garlits put a
holeshot on Dick Kalivoda and his Joker AA/FD from the Northwest.

Long time top fuel icon Chris Karamesines went for some of that funny car booking money
with a Ken Fuller chassis 'Cuda funny car. Longtime friend Cliff Zink drove for Karamesines.
It was a short-term venture for the Greek as it only lasted one season. Karamesines went
the funny car route briefly in the early 1970s with a Mustang flopper and then that car
was sold to John Locus.

Willie Borsch and the Winged Express AA/FA thrilled crowds on the West Coast but in 1969
the 'Express did a U.S.A. tour. At Martin, Michigan's US131 Dragway, Borsch got sideways and
left the racing surface. The car did a few rolls with its signature wing flying off. Spectators leapt
over the fence and grabbed the wing and headed into the parking lot. It was never seen again.
An all new Winged Express debuted about a year later but the old-style AA/FA was gone. The new
car had a funny car style chassis with a very small wing mounted on the roll bar. It just wasn't the same!

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