No. 17 "Jungle Jim" Liberman
No. 17 "Jungle Jim" Liberman

 

Years before John Force arrived on the scene, drag racing's original flamboyant showman was "Jungle Jim" Liberman; a larger-than-life individual whose flaming burnouts, glib personality, and boundless energy helped endeared him to fans in a manner that eluded other drivers with better winning records.

Liberman was much more than a touring professional; with his wild wheelstands, 100-mph backups from burnouts, stubborn refusal to lift on even the most out-of-shape runs, and his curvaceous companion, "Jungle Pam" Hardy, Liberman provided all the entertainment of a traveling circus.

Since he devoted most of his time to match racing, Liberman has only one NHRA national event victory to his credit as a driver, the 1975 Nationals. Clare Sanders drove Liberman's number-two car to a Funny Car victory at the 1969 Winternationals, but the Liberman saga was written with his personal appearances at tracks all over the country, ranging from Cecil County Dragway in Maryland to Orange County Int'l Raceway in California. Perhaps the most prolific match racer of the 1970s, Liberman averaged an estimated 100 dates per year during that decade.

Liberman's life, like the lives of many fast-living icons of youth such as James Dean, Jim Morrison, and Janis Joplin, was short as it was fast-paced. He died at the age of 32 after suffering fatal injuries in a head-on collision with a bus on Sept. 9, 1977. His premature passing left a void in the sport that wasn't replaced until Force's explosive personality emerged in the late 1980s.

Liberman was born in Pennsylvania, but did not begin racing until after he relocated to Northern California. Formal education held no attraction for the already streetwise racer, and he dropped out of high school during his junior year. After dabbling in Stock at Fremont Raceway in 1964, he made the quantum leap to Funny Car in 1965 by driving the injected nitro-burning Hercules Nova entry.

Later that year, he was introduced to the national scene as the driver of Lew Arrington's supercharged Brutus GTO Funny Car. In 1966, Liberman went out on his own with his first supercharged Chevy II, and in 1967, he went on a landmark tour that established him as a household name within drag racing circles across the country.

Despite the lack of factory backing that helped propel Mercury rivals Don Nicholson, Ed Schartman, and Jack Chrisman deep into the seven-second zone, Liberman's eight-second Chevy attracted a considerably larger following of fans. At a match race against Nicholson at Lions Dragstrip, Liberman was beaten by Nicholson's factory-backed Comet two consecutive times, but it was Liberman who won the hearts of the spectators after he did wheelstands for the full length of the track. "Jungle Jim" was simply more fun to watch.

The exponential growth of Liberman's popularity prompted him to field a two-car team in 1968 with Sanders as his initial choice for a driver. Others who would drive under Liberman's colors included Roy Harris, Russell Long, Pete Williams, Jake Crimmins, former partner Arrington, and Ron Attebury, who drove a Liberman-owned Top Fuel car in 1977. Liberman's team went on to include a Steve Kanuika-owned and sponsored nine-second heads-up '69 Camaro and a Dutch Irrgang-driven '72 Vega Pro Stocker.

Despite his frantic travel schedule, Liberman always made time for his fans and was eager to undertake any project that would boost drag racing's image. When Super Stock & Drag Illustrated came up with a story idea that required the total disassembly of a Funny Car down to the last nut and bolt for a true exploded-view picture, virtually every leading driver in the category politely turned down the magazine's request. Liberman, however, complied, and the resulting publicity only added to his legend.

One of Liberman's strengths over the years was that he was the leading banner carrier for the underdog Chevrolet contingent. There was some grumbling from die-hard purists in 1969 when he was finally forced to set aside his beloved rat motor in favor of a Chrysler Hemi, but he actually built upon his popularity by adding improved performances to his already established standards of showmanship.

Liberman reached his first NHRA final at the 1974 Summernationals in Englishtown, and though Al Segrini reached the finish line first with a 6.83, Liberman stole the show with an almost full-track wheelstand in which he still clocked a 7.14 at 204.54 mph.

Liberman's fans were thrilled when he ran a 6.21, 229.59 during a Wednesday night match race in Englishtown just prior to the 1976 U.S. Nationals -- a stuck throttle prompted a blower explosion and the melting of all eight pistons. Liberman finished the performance by spinning his smoldering Monza to a stop just five feet short of the guardrail at the end of the track.

Liberman also established a major performance plateau that year when he became the third entrant into the Cragar Funny Car five-second club with 5.96 and 5.99 clockings at Green Valley Race City in Smithfield, Texas.

Liberman best epitomized his style during one of his final appearances of the 1976 campaign. On the day of the 1976 OCIR Manufacturers Funny Car championships, Liberman spent six hours driving mini road-race cars at the local Malibu Grand Prix entertainment center. Arriving at the track with just minutes to go in qualifying, he made a full-track burnout that lit up the scoreboard with a nine-second elapsed time. Following one of his patented 100-mph backups to the starting line, Liberman qualified third for the event with a 6.24, 222.22.

Today, the legend of "Jungle Jim" lives on with "Jungle Pam," his constant companion in his heyday who titillated race fans with her skimpy outfits and provocative on-track actions.

"At every race track that I go to," said Hardy, "everyone comes up and asks for my autograph. They ask what he was like and if he was as crazy as they've heard. The fans really miss him, and they miss the fun part of drag racing. The sport has become so professional now that there's no room for any of that anymore.

"I was just 18 when I met him. I was still attending high school in West Chester, Pa., and had never been further away from home than the next town over. I was walking down the street one day, and here comes this yellow Corvette speeding down the street. This guy walks out, comes up to me, and says, 'Hi, I'm Jim.' I had never been to a drag race before, but the next thing I knew, we we're heading for his match race in Xenia, Ohio. He showed me how to back him up after the burnouts, and from then on, my life was just a whirlwind tour all over the country.

"All that showmanship was his true personality. He just didn't turn that on at the track and then became normal like everyone else at home. He had that sort of flair even when we were just at the house or went out some place. You could always feel his presence wherever he was." - John Jodauga


Comments from the panel
" 'Jungle Jim' Liberman created the spectacle of Funny Car match racing, complete with thousand-foot burn-outs, across-both-lanes and sideways racing and a braless, fishnet-topped 'back-up' pit groupie to further accent this far-out act from the '70s. What lay just beneath the surface of all that outrageousness was a unique individual who proved his showmanship was equally competitive in the open-competition format of major events. 'Jungle' made us realize that the show was easily as important as the numbers, and the pure enjoyment of racing was the true 'bottom line' of it all." -- Jim Hill

"Though far removed from his original intent, 'Jungle' was the first to package drag racing as a spectacle and take it on the road." -- Ro McGonegal

" 'Jungle' didn't win many national events, but he and sidekick Pam Hardy owned the match racing circuit. Best remembered for his tagline, "Drag racing is far out!" - but no one was as far out there as Liberman." -- Rick Voegelin

"Funny Car racer extraordinare. Considered by many to still have been the best promoter/driver the sport has ever had." -- Geoff Stunkard

" ' Jungle' understood the entertainment angle before anyone else." -- Dan Bennett

"Made drag racing 'far out.' Mr. Showmanship and the patron saint of all Funny Car drivers; just check their dashboards." -- Chris Martin