Photo above: A young Mike Dunn (on right, reaching for injector) wrenches on his dad's unique rear-engine Funny Car. "Big Jim" ran a best of 6.78 in qualifying at the Seattle event.
The 1972 Seafair Funny Car Championships had to be the best bargain in motorsports. For $5, one got to witness 32 Funny Cars from the grandstands and the pits. The afternoon included three rounds of qualifying with the finals held under the lights.
Ed "Ace" McCulloch had won the Winternationals, Gatornationals and Spring Nationals and was runner up at the Summer Nationals leading into the Seattle event. After beating Dave Beebe in Seattle's final round, "Ace" went on to win the U.S Nationals about a month later.
A young Gordie Bonin, from Red Deer, Alberta, Canada, impressed many in Gordon Jenner's ride. Bonin was certainly one of the stars over the years, later driving for the late Jerry Verheul.
Local standout Twig Zeigler entered the Funny Car scene after purchasing a burned-out hot rod from Art Whipple and Ed McCulloch. The car had burned up in a horrific trailer fire on Interstate 5. Zeigler qualified at a respectable 6.61-second elapsed time—quickest of all Northwest-based cars.
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF RUSS GRIFFITH
The final version of this Seafair event, in 1972, was 16 nitro cars and 16 alcohol cars – a major step up in Bill Doners’ expansion plan.
The perfect weather, a massive crowd and an excellent lineup of quality cars – it could be the setting for an unforgettable evening. Doner and Seattle International Raceway needed a huge success.
There would be nothing like the perfect final to cap off this evening back then, as it was all live on the giant rock and roll station KJR. If you compare this scene to a handful of hydros sputtering around Lake Washington the next day ... well folks, it’s no contest.
Two of the nitro entrants had accumulated incredible records throughout the summer. Both were more than willing to travel the long haul to Seattle – often called South Alaska – to grab another win against this exceptionally strong field of Funny Cars.
The Art Whipple-tuned race car of Dave Beebe arrived in Seattle with an almost-unheard-of 24 straight round wins. Ed “Ace” McCulloch, on the other hand, had traveled the National Event trail with a long list of wins and a runner-up leading to Seattle. Neither one of these teams were in a slump, and a win in Seattle would be a positive marker for their teams, both probably knowing their fate hung in balance. A win there was a must for these former teammates.
After three lengthy rounds of qualifying that afternoon and evening for the nitro cars, the perfect scenario came together. The nitro final ended up being McCulloch versus Beebe, who was driving the Mr. Ed Plymouth Satellite Funny Car from Fresno – the very one tuned by Whipple. These two were the two quickest cars on the property that night. It was simply one versus two after three great rounds of qualifying.
At minimum, a ferocious battle was about to ensue.
To set the magical scene, Doner had "worked" the huge audience into a real frenzy that night in 1972, with his robust, high-energy announcing efforts. As the two racers rolled forward in the staging lanes, everyone stood up in anticipation of a great final. As late as it was on that Saturday night not a soul had left … or even considered leaving until the answer was clear.
Race fans had watched the team of Whipple & McCulloch for many previous years at SIR, and tonight they were going nose-to-nose, mano-a-mano … no blinking allowed.
The motors for this final affair were lit simultaneously, leading to lengthy burnouts, side-by-side nearly to the eighth-mile mark. The fans were all standing and barely enduring the tension in the air as the two floppers pulled closer to the starting line.
The staging was really slow as both drivers knew what was at stake – you have to do everything perfect to win. The tension was high as they both slowly crept forward into the starting-line beams, both drivers aware of the other's moves.
Long flames shot from the headers and the engines rumbled. Folks, this was going to be an all-time battle between two really stout teams.
It was like the Christmas tree starting system knew what was going on as the lights just flickered a few times as they both rolled in for this incredible final. The starting line system must have been as nervous as everyone watching ... but not so for the two combatants – total concentration was in play.
The two cars rocketed away from the starting line together, in nearly lock-step combat, with huge flames spewing from their headers well over 20 feet in the night air. The race was dead close from one end to the other with "Ace" winning by a scant few feet, far less than a car length, more like a smidge.
The crowd went wild over this breath-taking experience. McCulloch’s 6.60 at 223.32 mph ousting Beebe in the Whipple-tuned machine at 6.62, 223.88 mph … it could not have been any closer.
Literally, nobody sat down in this huge throng of a crowd. All eyes were focused on the finish line as those two missiles had screamed toward the end of the quarter-mile. Finally, in a most memorable way, Ace had won over his former partner Whipple.
A dense fog of tire smoke and nitro fumes hung over the picturesque raceway that night as the noise from the two behemoths echoed through the trees and deep into the valley below. As they began to slow after the battle, some quiet was finally approaching the scene as the parachutes unfurled in the cooling night air. The often-trembling ground finally returned to some sort of stillness.
The Whipple dominance had finally come to a close at familiar SIR as there would be no No. 25 in his amazing stretch. There must have been a little chuckle on McCulloch's face as he made the long tow down the return road in his winning Revellution Dodge Demon. It must have been quite satisfying for Ace.
Without a doubt, it was the perfect final in establishing an expansion of this event to 64 Funny Cars in 1973. It was certainly a door-opener for what would end up being a 16-year run of this iconic 64-car event coming the next year, which had been brought about by the vision and wizardry of Doner. This part of his legacy will be etched in Seattle motorsports forever.
Those in attendance could hardly wait as Doner reminded them over and over of the bigger event coming the next year. Once again, "YOU gotta be here for the Big One next year." His personal invitation was well supported by one of the best final rounds ever held at SIR … and certainly there had been a lot of them over the years.
Later, Beebe, who had taken time off of his Service Manager position in Anaheim to drive for Whipple, had promised to call his wife from the SIR tower. He said, "We lost in the final … it was very close but McCulloch nosed us out. I wanted so bad to win this thing." He certainly knew and understood the importance of this whole evening for the future of Funny Cars. Huge crowd, fabulous racing – it was perfect.
The race track that stumbled in searching for its financial identity had, in one exciting evening, established itself as the center of big-time drag racing in the Northwest. SIR and the upcoming 64 Funny Car show would be the talk of the sport all across the country as the 1973 race date got closer.
Nothing impacted the sport of drag racing during this time like this event did. The buzz was everywhere.
Editor's note -- "Part 3 – 'Hey, Doner, Where are you going to get 64 Funny Cars?'" will be published in February.