Today is Halloween so we decided to go on the spooky and macabre side of things for this Top 11 list. Throughout the history of drag racing there have been great innovations, great innovators, and many experiments that panned out and advanced the sport. There have also been horrible failures, accidents, and disasters that have left indelible marks on drag racing’s legacy as one of the most popular forms of racing in America. Today we’re not looking at anything that succeeded. We’re looking at cars that wrecked on their first runs, maimed their drivers, killed their drivers, and in at least one case, killed someone else. Some of these cars were destroyed on their very first lap. Some didn’t make a season…none of them worked as their builders or operators thought that they would. This is a list (in no particular order) of what we believe are the 11 most ill-fated drag race cars of all time. (Cue creepy music)
11.) Richard Petty’s Outlawed Barracuda – Many of you know this story already, but the fact that NASCAR decided to ban the Chrysler hemi in 1965 caused a huge ripple effect across the racing world in America. Many factory Chrysler NASCAR drivers turned to the quarter mile to race because they were locked out of the high banks. One of those racers was Richard Petty. A huge draw at any track he was racing at, Petty jumped right into the southern match bash scene that was exploding at the time. After a few successful outings, Petty arrived at a race in Dallas, Georgia not knowing that his life would be changed forever by the end of the weekend.
While on a pass, Petty’s car veered off the course (which had no guard walls), climbed an embankment and ran into the crowd. Either spectators were seriously hurt and an eight year old boy was killed in the chaos. Reportedly the car was cut to pieces and buried on the Petty property and has never been raised from its grave since.
A second car was built, presumably to allow Petty to finish his scheduled appearances for the year and when those commitments were fulfilled, Petty never turned a wheel at the drags again.
10.) Dave Zachary’s “World’s Fastest Eldorado” Funny Car – This car is a true heartbreaker because it was both epically cool and a death trap that killed its driver, Dave Zachary. As you would imagine, the machine was obscenely heavy with its giant fiberglass Cadillac Eldorado body which was hinged at the front as is seen in the photo on the left. Zachary originally ran this car with an injected big block Chevy as is shown in the photo but as the story goes, he traveled west and found out quickly that he was in need of a vastly more powerful engine to be competitive with the Eldo. Zachary operated a body shop in Indiana and he made this body on his own. It was (in our opinion) a spectacularly cool piece.
He went to Keith Black and ordered a full tilt, Keith Black Hemi and returned to his Evansville, Indiana base of operations to upgrade the car. Apparently between adding the new, more powerful engine and hitting the track, he decided to remove a large air pan that ran under the front of the car to keep air from getting up inside the body. You can see by the photo that the engine and driver position was justified to the rear significantly. We assume that the pan was removed with hopes to make the car faster but if the story is true, it proved to be his undoing.
At the first race he appeared at with the re-powered car hopes were high at Bluegrass Dragway in Lexington, Kentucky. We’re not sure if this was on his first run or a later pass, but Zachary’s car took flight past the finish line, landed upside down and the woefully inadequate roll bar folded up, killing Zachary and ending the legend of the World’s Fastest Eldorado.
9.) John Smyser’s Terrifying Toronado – If there are a couple of terms in drag racing’s history from the 1960s and 1970s that should tip you off to imminent failure, “four wheel drive” is one. Other than Tommy Ivo’s “Showboat” it never really ended well.
Adding multiple engines with multiple transmissions to the mix only adds a nice layer of frosting to the fail cake. John Smyser was a successful fuel dragster racer before he was bitten by an idea of building a wild twin engine, four wheel drive Olds Toronado powered by a pair of 425ci engines. Apparently the front engine was hooked to an automatic transmission and the rear engine was hooked to a traditional twin disc clutch.
The good news for Smyser is that his first appearance at a strip with the car in 1966 went great. The main reason is that he only displayed the car and didn’t run it. The next weekend he took the car down the track and on that first run the photo to the left was taken. This was at Irwindale and apparently the car completely left the ball yard and was making enough steam that people in the stands started running for their lives. He didn’t get to the stands, but it was close enough. There were a few more disappointing laps during 1966 and then 1967 happened.
The car made one more appearance where a near mirror situation occurred but this time it smashed through the guardrail at the top end of the track, was virtually destroyed and never saw the light of day again. Smyser had to have been lamenting his decision to leave the fuel ranks for that car. The Hurst Hairy Olds was more famous but equally as pissed off and also led a short life.
8.) Gary Gabelich’s rear engine, monocoque, four wheel drive Vega station wagon funny car – Yep, you read all that right. As you can see in the photo, this was an absolutely wild creation. It combined so many things that never really worked right in drag racing perhaps the logic was that such a massive combo of weirdness would result in a car that actually performed. It didn’t. There is very little history on this car because it never actually made a full pass.
The car’s first outing was supposed to consist of a burnout after Gabelich presented the car and fired it up in front of the assembled media that was at the track. Unfortunately, Gabelich tried to drive the car a lot longer than planned and it impacted the guardrail, badly wounding his hand. That was it. The car was not fixed to our knowledge and no one else did anything with it.
You have to love the wacky looks though with the front slicks looking cartoonishly huge because the body sits so low. Someone needs to try to make this stew of ideas work, we just want to see them try!
7.) Don Garlits Swamp Rat 13 dragster – It is drag racing’s most important failure. When Don Garlits hit the throttle on the starting line at Lions on that afternoon in 1970 and the innovative transmission that carried his name exploded, sawing the car and his foot in half, it changed the course of the sport. We all know what came next and how quickly the rear engine dragster became the mainstay of professional drag racing.
Lots of people think that the “Garlits-drive” transmission was some untested quantity and that when he hammered the car at Lions, it was the first time the thing had seen active duty. That’s false. Big Daddy won the 1969 Smoker’s meet in NY and a bunch of match races with that transmission in the car. That’s not to say that Garlits would rather have most of his right foot back rather than the trophies from the match races.
6.) The Turbonique Black Widow VW Bug – Why was this car ill-fated? IT WAS A FREAKING TURBONIQUE DRAG AXLE POWERED VW BUG! Seriously, we’re not sure if we should admire the courage of driver Roy Drew of if we should pity for having suffered some sort of mental illness that made him think that this whole thing was a fantastic idea.
Drew raced the car many times and it had garnered enough interest and press that he was set to take the thing on a national tour to compete against all comers. It had famously out run Ivo’s four engine car and most other stuff that ran up against it but it couldn’t outrun physics. At over 180mph the little VW took flight and wrecked in spectacular fashion. The most shocking thing about this whole situation is that Drew actually lived though it. Amazingly, the car had not yet completed its run when it was making that huge speed meaning that there was more left in it. Amazing stuff.
There is ill-fated and ill-conceived. The Turbonique Black Widow was both.
5.) Pete Robinson’s “squeegee” car – One of drag racing’s great innovators, Pete Robinson wasn’t encumbered by the proverbial box. He was a very smart man and seemed to grasp some concepts ahead of other racers. Early evidence of this was his successful flyweight top gas dragsters that was able to slay some of the big twin engine jobs and gain a strong reputation as a giant killer.
Like some innovators are wont to do, Robinson pushed into an area where forces beyond even what he could design for existed. As you can see from the photo on the left, Robinson added an air dam at roughly midships on the dragster in an effort to better adhere the car to the track. At the 1971 Winternationals a failure occurred either in the steering or with the air dam and the car crashed, killing Robinson. Some surmise the downward pressure was so great that the front tires came off the rims. While it is impossible to say for sure what the root cause of the wreck was, circumstantial evidence allows for speculation that the aerodynamic forces involved had a negative effect on the car.
4.) Tommy Ivo’s Sikora Brothers Top Fuel Dragster – When Larry Sikora asked Tommy Ivo if he could build him a car and Ivo agreed, Sikora wanted to employ some new design techniques to push the technology of the early rear engine dragster era. The car was beautiful with front “wheel pants”, beautiful paint, and a low wing in the rear.
It lasted four runs at the NHRA Winternationals before suffering one of the most spectacular top end wrecks in drag racing history. Ivo survived and joked today that he’s disappointed that he closed his eyes because he missed the whole show. In his book, Ivo talks about his belief that the low wing placement on the car was one of its major undoings. The narrow (for the time) front track width may have also been an issue as well. Needless to say, Ivo went back to Woody Gilmore for his chassis after that.
3.) EJ Potter’s Allison Powered 1957 Plymouth Nightmare 1 – When EJ Potter thought that he could spice up his already completely insane V8 motorcycle act in the 1960s, his first side track was a 1957 Plymouth sedan which he installed a supercharged Allison V12 airplane engine in. Looking at the photo on the left you can see that he is driving where the rear seat would have been.
After making some tweaks like adding big sand bags to the trunk to aid in traction and smoke making, he started to enjoy driving the car. He wanted to blaze the tires but the thing also needed to go fast to make for a good show, so speed was paramount. By the time he had it”figured out” the car would run nearly 150mph which was unheard of for a stock bodied machine of the day.
Unfortunately on a run where he crossed the finish at 147mph and lifted off the throttle, the engine backfired, blew up the supercharger and bathed him in lots and lots of fire and boiling hot oil. He was burned very badly on his hands as he had neglected to wear gloves for protection and there was nothing covering the engine inside the car. Another version of this car was created with an enclosure over the engine. Potter never missed a booked-in date. He told us stories about driving down the highway with his wife mopping the ooze off of his badly torched hands with gauze.
2.) The Vulcan Shuttle Rocket VW – Rocket cars are getting ready to make a comeback at US drag strips although none of them will be like the Vulcan Shuttle which is a good thing for everyone involved. The big difference between the Vulcan Shuttle and other rocket cars is that it used a solid propellant rocket. Once it was lit, there was no shutting it off. Peroxide can be stopped, this stuff couldn’t. Raul Cabrera and Ron Poole built the creation and both of them drove it at times. It was just as it appears, a VW that had a roll cage added and a faux missile stuck through the middle.
The machine made many successful drag strip appearances turning in the 180-190mph range and leaving people baffled at every turn. The end came in 1981 while the car was appearing at a Florida airport. Something went askew with the rocket forcing the nose of the car down. The front end collapsed and the car went into a series of end of end flips that ejected Poole and killed him instantly.
Get a load of that thing!
1.) Tommy Ivo’s 1978 Plymouth Arrow Funny Car – It all started very well for the 1978 Plymouth Arrow that Tommy Ivo built. He was running with the fast guys at the Winternationals, he made the final round in Seattle, and also at the race that was held in Oregon years ago. It was looking like the “TV” Tommy Ivo of old was back in the saddle and making noise like he did in the middle 1960s. Then came a race at New England Dragway in Epping, New Hampshire.
In one of the scariest crashes in that track’s history, Tim Kushi in the Yankee Sizzler flopper rear ended Ivo at an incredible rate of speed completely destroying both cars and sending what were two nice funny cars to the scrap heap. As you can see from the photo on the left, there were no guard walls past the finish line in Epping so when the car got together they tumbled through saplings, brush, assorted other greenery. It would be the last piston powered funny car that Ivo would race. He ran a jet dragster, a jet funny car, and then the four engine car again in 1982 to round out his career. Had the wreck with Kushi not happened, who knows how his career path would have changed.
This poor car was a victim of circumstance. Wrong track at the wrong time.