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Chapter Six: Chart Your Course, But Sail With the Winds


Earl Watts and Ron Miller hash over just what kind of a foolish person would want to undertake building a nitro-powered funny car.

Sunday morning, we headed north on I-17 to Flagstaff for breakfast, then east on I-40 to Winslow. It was exciting to be finally going to touch the body and chassis. I hoped to spend a concerted amount of time with Chris Stinson and really get a lot done.

But, I was also warned that it was possible that the entire town of Winslow had been invited to stop by and see the weirdo who was building a funny car.

In Emails, Chris was perplexed about the proper placement of the body on the chassis. While the wheelbase of both the body and the chassis were both approximately the same, it was obvious to him that things didn't line up the way they should.

Early fliptop FCs had their rear wheels in approximately stock position. Both the driver and engine were shoved back and the front wheels were moved forward a few inches. The chassis were built to match individual bodies. The early models, whether from Logghe, Hardy, or whomever, usually had the rear axle centerline quite a ways behind the driver and hanging from coil-over shocks and ladder bars. More modern, narrower chassis moved the driver's butt back on top of the pinion changing the dimension drastically between axle centerline and driver.


With the tires and wheels OFF the car, it was much easier to get the body close to where it needs to be. Note the rectangular uprights that the rear end bolts to. Rare to find rectangular chromoly in a racecar today.

Another thing about the early cars was that as horsepower and rear tires increased, the chassis had to get narrower to make room. An earlier wider chassis car was unable to handle the wider tires without modifications. Usually, the low buck teams that would have run the older cars just radiused the wheelwells and let the bigger tires stick out.

Another scenario was that a team rebodied an older chassis. This placed a narrow body on a wide chassis and forced the car to be jacked up to allow the tires to clear, radiused wheel wells or a combination of both. There were even several cars that had major fiberglass wheel bubbles to clear and cover ever-widening tires.

One famous car that combined several aspects of the problem was Larry Arnold's Kingfish. It was originally a Logghe-built 68 vintage Barracuda that become a 70 ‘Cuda. It ran hard, as strong as any car in the country, and Arnold ran it with radiused wheelwells and tires sticking out right through the 1971 season. He won the Supernationals at Ontario that year against all comers.


The two major components seem to have become combatants! They just don't want to fit together.

When we pulled in, there were already four or five folk hanging around Ron's. I was introduced, and immediately started circling the scene. Several of us grabbed hold and set the body on the chassis and I could immediately see the problem(s).

As you can see, the Nova body I have found was one that was raced until it was long in the tooth – past its prime. The rear wheelwells are radiused as if the body was originally run on a wider, 68 or 69 chassis; my thoughts are a Don Hardy. Another strange bit of evidence is an aluminum bubble in the back window, obviously to clear an addition on the early cage or the dragster-style hoop of a later chassis. I have no idea.

When the front wheels were reasonably close to their proper spot, the rears were way off. When the rear tires were centered up, the cage hit the body. We moved it back and forth until we were convinced nothing would work. We took the body back off and began checking things. We measured. We talked. We hashed things over. More people stopped by. We discussed modifications, various alterations.

What we discovered was that the wheelbase of the chassis was right around 117 inches. The body was closer to 115, and nothing (let me repeat that) NOTHING matched up.


Chris Stinson dove under the body and whacked out the old front body "tree" to rid us of a major interference.

I OK'd Chris to chop the original front "tree" out of the body in hopes of getting some clearance and indeed that helped some but not enough. With virtually every performance car oriented male from Winslow present, it was easy to lift and replace the body with any whims we happened to have. But try as we might, we couldn't force the two major pieces to fit.

The first thought was to shorten wheelbase of the chassis to match the body. Of course, there were a number of different ideas on how to successfully accomplish that. Chris made a couple suggestions figuring he could whittle and weld the chassis to match exactly what was necessary. Longer torsion bar arms were discussed to move the axle back and shorten the wheelbase. Stretching the body was considered, as were moving the wheelwells.

People came and went. There was even a fiberglass expert called in, a guy that unfortunately would be unable to tackle the extensive surgery for at least three months.

With just a wee bit of fiberglass work in my history – partly on funny cars and the other the constant repair of a motorcycle I had when I was 16 – I pulled Earl aside and explained to him how I'd add six inches to the Nova's nose.


With the tree out of the way, the body finally sat down and took on the illusion that things were going to work. Even though it didn't quite fit, it still began to cool damned cool to me!

It was at least another hour of discussion, with almost everyone adding his or her personal ideas to the confusion – a scene Laurie would later describe as the "Winslow Sewing Circle." Don't get me wrong, there were some very good ideas exchanged.

Suddenly, Earl pulled me aside, a few feet from the unshakable dialogue. He basically said that since I was so confident that I could do the job, why not just haul it to his back yard and do it. Why not indeed. We could head for the house, get the little trailer that carried Laurie's dragster, come back and get the body the next day. Maybe we won't need to. I grabbed a tape measure and we checked his Ford dually. The body would fit inside the sides but was better if the rear wheelwells were set on the tailgate and the front bumper on the roof. With our goal set, we grabbed the body and had it on the truck while the discussers were still mid sentence. As we tied the body down, we had to answer a lot of "Whatchagonnado?"s, but between the time Earl and I said "Let's do it," and the time we merged onto westbound I-40, barely 15 minutes had transpired.

After a day of indecision and unknowing, just having done something felt positive. And other than one tie-strap that insisted on buzzing an eerie F#, the entire trip was full of what we planned to do the following morning.

When Laurie "wordsmith" Watts saw the truck with the body on the back, she suggested it looked like a "redneck ramptruck." She took a number of photos of the mating of the FC body and Ford truck.


Chris spent some of his time on his back checking to see what exactly our interference problems were. No work has been done to the chassis itself -- yet. That's real torsion bar, straight axle and tank, exactly the way they came. I still have no clues as to who built the chassis. There are no numbers or identifying marks at all.

The following morning, Earl and I headed to several spots around Camp Verde.

The first was to a guy we'd heard was an out of work body and fender man and races motorcycles on the side. He was home and was interested in the project and even said he could do it. However, he'd just accepted a job repairing cars for the school district. So, we checked out his bikes and listened to his ideas on how to stretch the body. He also tipped us to another person that might be able to help.

Less than a mile away lives one of the most colorful characters I met that weekend. We were told that "Kirk" Kirkendall had been around fiberglass since before it had been invented. Earl and I found him wandering around in a field checking out the beginnings of a crop, and hollering orders at a couple youngsters working there. After brief introductions, we explained why we'd come to visit.

"We're workin' on a funny car," we told him, "and need some advice."

"I'll show you a funny car," said the aging Mr. Kirkendall, then he untarped a 1924 Dodge Bros. touring car that he'd restored. There was also a Triumph TR-4, which he insisted his grandkids were crazy for. He then proceeded to inspect the Nova and point by point walked us through exactly how to accomplish the task. He then gave us a tour of his place including a history of some of the fiberglass projects with which he'd been involved. One was a sixty-foot boat that he'd stretched ten feet! There were stories. There were moments. He had a hobby shop that obviously had seen its share of fiberglass projects.


You're not going to believe me but when I shot this photo, I had tears in my eyes. A real Chevrolet Nova funny car was evolving right in front of me! Though a long ways from completion, the dream had suddenly become far more of a solid reality.

I dared to ask, "So, would you be interested in doing this yourself?" at what I thought to be an opportune moment. I got the answer, that should this story ever get to the big screen, could not be written better.

In the movie, Kirkendall would be played by Jack Palance. My character, played by Tom Cruise, would listen intently to his stories, throwing in a few quips whenever the opportunity arose. Following the well-placed question, "So, would you be interested in doing this yourself?" the answer came, exactly the way "Kirk" had delivered it.

"I'm eighty-years old, son," Palance would say, following script and direction to the letter, "Why would I want to do that?"

Tom and Bill Bob Thornton, playing Earl, look at each other with knowledge that they'd been put down by the best, bid their adieus, crawl back in the truck and head for the next stop.


And there is the handiest way to move a funny car body! That is, if the body in question is very narrow and you don't need to worry about paint on either the FC or the truck. In this case, the Watts' Ford was a work truck so there is no cause for alarm for scratching the inside of the bed.

What really happened was that I asked if he could help and advise as necessary and "Kirk" said he'd help out with anything we needed. In fact, he volunteered to help do the finish work after we got it roughed.

Earl drew a map so Mr. Kirkendall could find the Watts estate, and we headed for an 11am appointment at Quintus Marine.

According to the operations manager, Kevin, Quintus indeed once built boats of all types and sizes, and the nautical name had survived. They were fully spooled up on a government contract building helicopter fuel tanks. Kevin walked us through the place and after inspected the Nova body, told us that while he couldn't offer physical help, he volunteered his fiberglass mat and cloth scrap bin. He also shared that we were welcome to any resin that had gone past the government-mandated shelf life.

With that, we carried our precious cargo back to the house, unloaded it and while Earl bolted a new starter in the truck, I packed. We then discussed a little more plans for stretching the body. Laurie surprised me by coming home from work earlier than she'd originally planned and she and Earl took me cross-town to the shuttle stop. I rode it in silence to the Phoenix airport, deep in thought about the next step.

I committed a major faux pas. There were no pictures of me sitting in the car. But, I had learned two major lessons. Building a funny car on zero budget was going to be one major stumbling block after another and it was going to take a lot of friends. I'd like to thank everyone that has become involved, especially Laurie, Earl and Chris.


While touring Camp Verde, Earl Watts showed me what the locals call "the Vodnik." Purportedly one of Bobby Vodnik's cars from about 1962, it rides behind a 62 Plymouth and sits out behind the main performance auto parts outlet there, Ladd Maize's Carquest. He is 100% into Mopars.

 

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