Great Race: 1969 U.S. Nationals
by Bruce Dillashaw
Don Prudhomme's second Top Fuel win and John "the Zookeeper" Mulligan's astounding 6.43 low e.t. clocking to grab the pole before his fatal run in eliminations usually come to mind first when recalling the 1969 U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis. But the performance of the new Funny Car class that came on the scene just four years earlier was beginning to turn a lot of heads. By 1969, the cars with the somewhat disparaging name had begun to metamorphose into real race cars.
Like the Top Fuel dragsters, the Funny Cars used lightweight, professionally built chromoly space frames, and they were powered by the same engines as the dragsters. Don Schumacher, who would win his first NHRA national event in Indianapolis the following year, ran a low e.t. of 7.22 with his Barracuda-bodied car, and former world champion and 1962 U.S. Nationals Top Eliminator winner Jack Chrisman set top speed at 206 mph with his Mustang.
The much lighter Top Fuel dragsters were quite a bit quicker — the bump for the 32-car field was 6.75, and nonqualifier Tom Chastagn had top speed at 231.76 mph — but the fully suspended, short-wheelbase, distinctive and colorful Funny Cars were much more fun to watch compared to the look-alike Top Fuelers.
Danny Ongais, at the wheel of Mickey Thompson's blue Mach 1 Mustang Funny Car, was the man to beat in the class' first year. The Springnationals winner got off to a slow start in qualifying, but he did qualify with a 7.30 at 201 mph. The e.t.s of the two alternates in the 16-car field, Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Stars match racers Kenny Safford (7.55) and Jess Tyree (7.57), were quicker than the national record of 7.58.
The Funny Cars had been given their own eliminator for the first time at the 1969 Winternationals, where clockings ranged from 7.79 to 8.33, and the class' best were at the U.S. Nationals, hoping for the win, publicity, and match race bookings it would generate.
Racing against veterans such as Dick Loehr, Bruce Larson, Connie Kalitta, the team of Candies & Hughes, and the rest of the Cavalcade of Stars team of Kelly Chadwick, Marv Eldridge, Dick Bourgeouis, Fred Goeske, and Gary Dyer, Ongais won when Rich Siroonian red-lighted in the final in his uncle "Big John" Mazmanian's Barracuda.
Contributing to the fun of watching what were essentially full-size street car look-alikes snake down the track to low seven-second, 200-mph times was the reliability of the automatic-transmission-equipped Funny Cars. Mixed in with the Top Fuel dragsters' great times were more destroyed engines, superchargers, and centrifugal clutches — the result of hydrazine in the nitromethane and the fatiguing heat generated by the still new centrifugal-clutch technology — than any previous NHRA national event in memory.
Prudhomme qualified high in the field with a 6.56 and benefited from two early red-lights by Bob Murray and Bennie Osborn. A quicker Tom Raley spun the tires in the semifinals while Prudhomme used up his engine to a 6.59. A brief rain shower before the second semifinal race between Kelly Brown, who would win, and Jim Paoli gave Prudhomme and friends time to install a new engine for the final with Brown. Prudhomme joined Garlits as the only multiple Pro-class winner at Indy with his second win and first of two straight U.S. Nationals Top Fuel titles with a 6.51 at 223.34 mph to Brown's 6.78 at 205.01 mph.
"Ohio George" Montgomery's Super Eliminator win with his revolutionary Mustang-bodied, supercharged AA/Gasser was his fourth and last U.S. Nationals win. Montgomery, who previously had won the Springnationals after forsaking his unaerodynamic Willys, defeated Ron Ellis's AA/A in the final with a national record 8.59 at 164.23 mph to Ellis' catch-up 8.46, 162.16 mph.
Top Gas winner Domenic Santucci, who would go on to race Funny Cars for many years, forever carved his name into drag racing lore when he nearly choked to death on bubble gum at the end of his No. 1 qualifying run of 7.54. Santucci defeated a red-lighting Phil Hobbs in the final the next day, running down the quarter one-handed to a 7.68 e.t. at 195.22 mph, flashing the victory sign the whole way.
Some added off-track drama in Super Stock materialized when the Chrysler factory teams employed a plan to preserve their class records for Monday's eliminator competition. Because any run during class eliminations or time trials that was quicker than the existing national record became the new standard, Chrysler conducted its own contests prior to the Nationals at a track in Ohio. Ronnie Sox, who was already seeded into the Nationals field as driver of one of the two quickest SS/B cars, was told by Chrysler representatives to red-light in the class final to allow another Chrysler racer into the field. Sox didn't like being told to take a dive, and he made an all-out run after fouling that would have lowered the record four-tenths of a second. Said Sox's partner at the time, Buddy Martin, "Fortunately for us, they didn't stop Ronnie at the scales. He came back to our trailer and we left the track. If they had weighed him, the record would have been legal, and that would have hurt our chances badly in Super Stock eliminations." A calmer Sox returned on Monday to win Super Stock with a slowing 10.89 at 124.82 mph after Dave Wren broke in the final.
Terry Fritsch, a 22-year-old resident of Omaha, Neb., won Competition with his A/Comp dragster. Glen Self, father of Pro Stock Truck driver and cylinder-head manufacturer Brian, won Street with his 12.2-second, six-cylinder-powered F/Modified Production '67 Camaro. Bill Morgan won Stock with the Tritak & Morgan C/SA '63 Plymouth wagon.