Larry Reyes had little choice but to be a drag racer. Born in the right time, and in the right place to let his automotive interests develop along with the first steps of organized drag racing, Reyes path was laid before him as a pioneer. His Orange County California home put him at the epicenter of what was to become ground zero of an entire subculture of go fast minded hot rodders.
Drag racing was a "new" thing in the early fifties. It was still an outcast activity seeking the direction needed to ensure its survival as a legitimate, and legal activity. The legions of young men who had a desire to test their homemade cars in open competition would find that direction with the birth of the National Hot Rod Association.
One of the first drag strips to operate on a regular basis was in Reyes own backyard. The Santa Ana drags were conducted at the local airport, and in 1955, a then fourteen-year-old Larry Reyes took his first trip down that historical quarter mile. His mother's Volkswagen was his first ride. It took a fair amount of coaxing by Reyes father to convince the track manager to let the teenager compete. C.J. "Pappy" Hart would also require a signed waiver from Larry's dad, but from that point on, Reyes cultivated a place for himself within the drag racing "scene" that was growing from Southern California. The fact that Hart allowed Reyes to compete at such a young age is indicative of his concern for the racers. He would come to be looked upon as a "father figure" by many, managing tracks in the Southern California area well into the 1970's. Concerns about liability were obviously outweighed by a desire to "guide" the young motor heads to the track and off the streets.
While the formative years of Reyes racing career may have started early on, his interest in all things automotive pre dates even his first forays down the 1320. He learned to drive almost before he could see over the steering wheel. Quick jaunts up and down the driveway in the family car planted the seed. The neighborhood kids were suitably impressed with their 10-year-old pal. His desire for speed was further honed by working for his uncle. His dairy delivery business just happened to have a Chevy panel truck that had received a Corvette drive train. Driving this truck no doubt helped refine his ability to drive at a pace that would prevent the milk from curdling. Likewise, clandestine journeys driving a variety of cars through the desolate orange groves, and bean fields of his California homeland would prove beneficial in developing his "speed skills".
As the 68 season progressed, the wins began to pile up. The first big victory came at Capitol Raceway in Maryland. The annual Supercharged King of Kings Invitational race was an east coast event that carried considerable bragging rights, drawing most of the biggest names of the day in Funny Car racing. The team of Taylor and Reyes turned back the likes of "Dyno" Don Nicholson, Fred Goeske, Bourgeois & Wade (Doug's Header's Corvair), Stone-Woods-Cook, "Jungle" Jim Liberman, Malcolm Durham's "Strip Blazer", Lew Arrington's "Brutus", and "Rapid" Ronnie Runyan. By the time Reyes met "Dyno" Don in the final round, he was in fine form as Nicholson's Cougar flopper was trailered with a new track record (7.54 @ 192.03). "Dyno" could not keep pace (8.05 @ 181.80).
Next up, Reyes occupied the winner's circle at Detroit Dragway with a victory in the Super Stock Magazine Funny Car Invitational. Reyes put away "Fearless" Fred Goeske after getting to the final round as a back-up car when Roger Lindamood's "Color Me Gone" Dodge could not make the call due to mechanical problems. This race was looked upon as a warm-up for Funny Car racing's most prestigious race of 68, The Super Stock Magazine Nationals contested at New York National Speedway. This race was the pinnacle of mid sixties doorslammer racing. The Funny Cars were descendants of "real" door cars, and the crowds were standing room only to watch the nitro burners duke it out. After three days of grueling competition, and another stroke of good fortune when the "break" rule favored the "Super Cuda" once again, Reyes emerged as top dog with Funny Car Racing's most sought after prize. This win at the Super Stock Nationals firmly established Reyes as one of the nation's best journeyman drivers. Match race victories became commonplace, and Reyes finished off the year with a resounding victory at the AHRA Drag World Championships in Wichita Kansas. Gene Snow, Dick Harrell, Seaton's "Super Shaker", Mike Burkhart's Camaro, and Dick Loehr's "Stampede" Ford were all shown the way home as Reyes emerged victorious, with another low E.T. of the meet (7.72) as an extra feather in the cap.
NHRA had previously been very lukewarm to embracing funny cars as a legitimate professional drag racing eliminator. In previous years they relegated them to A/FX, or "Experimental Stock" status within "Super" eliminator. However, by 1969 the handwriting was on the wall, and the "plastic fantastics" were invited to the party at long last. Infamous engine guru Keith Black, and the Logghe brothers' chassis works were pressed into overtime to finish the "Hawaiian" for the "Big Go West". Pomona was then noted as a "slick" race track, only used at that time for the once per year "Winter's". The new flopper was having some teething problems and the handling was very suspect on the fairgrounds race track. This led to the new "Hawaiian" struggling to make the field, with Reyes nudging his way into the show by occupying the last qualifying position with an 8.33. Come race day, the spooky handling was still with the new team. Yet, they got by Larry Christopherson in the first round, only to clear the finish line with the front of the car pointed toward the start line, and the rear of the car some six feet in the air. The ensuing barrel rolls reduced the slick new machine to a near basket case, with the body sheared completely off the frame and totally destroyed. The chassis, while damaged, did its job and kept its roll cage intact. This allowed Reyes to emerge from the rubble of his first major accident with a bit of soreness, but eager to return to the strip in a refurbished "Hawaiian" that was already coming together as he dusted off his fire suit. Tire pressure irregularities were eventually suspected as the cause of the Dodge's "flight" through the traps.
The re-fabb'ed "Hawaiian" then set about becoming a force to be reckoned with at funny car races across the country. Match race bookings were their bread and butter, and strong performances were turned in at several big independent meets such as the manufacturer's team races held at Orange County Raceway, and in Rockford Illinois. The "Hawaiian" race team accomplished something else noteworthy during the 69 season, they actually made money racing. They made a choice to avoid concentrating too hard on the "National" event scene, and chose to pursue the guaranteed pay off of the match racing circuit. National events, while big on press coverage, were notorious for low purses and heavy parts attrition. Hence, the "Hawaiian" made irregular appearances at these meets, and the funny cars of Mickey Thompson snagged the spotlight at the national events in 69. Pat Foster built and drove the red Mustang for Thompson, and fellow native Hawaiian Danny "on the gas" Ongias drove the blue John Buttera built "Stang" for Thompson. They simply dominated the class during this pivotal season in the development of the funny car.
By the time the 1970 season rolled around, a new
sense of professionalism was coming to drag racing. Funny cars were drawing a
majority of the attention by the press, and several long time top fuel
competitors were either switching to the new eliminator, or adding one of the
flip top racers to their arsenal of competitive machinery. The crowd-pleasing
floppers had already absorbed many of the premier racers from the glory years of
gas supercharged racing's match race days. Stone-Woods-Cook. And "Big"
John Mazmanian being amongst the most recognizable converts. Don Prudhomme, and
Tom McEwen both made a very noticeable debut of their "Wildlife
Racing" funny cars with the ground-breaking sponsorship from Mattel toys.
During the 70 season and early into 71, Chris Karamisines, Jim Dunn, and
Detroit's "Ramchargers" would debut funnies, as would Tim Beebe with
his "Fighting Irish" Camaro. All of these racers had been Top Fuel
competitors just a year earlier. The Coca-Cola folks would sponsor an entire
series of funny car only events known as the "Coca-Cola Cavalcade of Funny
Cars". Times were good for the flip top cars. Match races were readily
available. A national event win, while not very profitable, began to carry more
importance as a badge of honor, and the match race bookings would increase as a
result. The "Hawaiian" team wanted to reign victorious at one of these
events, and a new car was assembled for the 70 season debut at the NHRA
Winternationals. Reyes wheeled the latest "Hawaiian" to a decisive
victory at NHRA's season opener, showing the likes of Mazmanian, Kelly
"Professor" Chadwick, Candies & Hughes, and Gene Snow's
"Rambunctious" Dodge the way home. The victory bolstered the cars
image as a contender, and vindicated Reyes, who endured a barrage of
not-so-subtle reminders of his 69 crash at the same race track.
Upon returning to Memphis, Reyes, along with Larry Coleman, Bill Taylor, and Royce Hutchison, pooled their efforts to put a new edition of the "Super Cuda" on the nation's drag strips. Always ready to race, Reyes had previously put in some track time behind the wheel of Coleman's "Super Ford" Torino bodied funny car and his relationship with Taylor was lengthy and successful. The new car was immediately put into service as one of the eight "seeded" cars on the AHRA Grand American series of national events. NHRA competition began with an appearance at the Gatornationals, but the "Super Cuda" was sent home in the first round by Leroy Goldstein in the "Ramchargers" Challenger. AHRA competition was not proving to be very productive in early 71 either, so soon Reyes began to concentrate on the more reliable match race circuit as his mainstay.
It was a small, almost routine race, the sort that Reyes had plied his trade at for years, where things went terribly wrong. On that particular afternoon in Norwalk Ohio during June of 1971 his life would undergo a profound change. When the "Super Cuda" lost a wheel at speed, a violent crash was the result. Now the challenge was not in the next lane, but would come from within. Initially, it was feared that Reyes would be almost completely paralyzed. However, he fought back and regained considerable mobility, but the need for a wheelchair would prevent him from returning to the cockpit of a funny car again. Soon, the respect his colleagues held for him would become apparent as Reyes adapted to a less accelerated lifestyle.
The medical costs incurred during recovery were
huge, and longtime friend and racing cohort Bill Taylor was the spark that
started a fire of good will. Taylor felt that a benefit race was needed to help
defray the mounting bills, so he put the wheels in motion to make such an event
a reality. With the help of the Gold promotional agency, everything began
to come together. U.S. 30 drag strip in Gary Indiana would be the site of the
race due to its close proximity to Indianapolis, and the Friday following the
Nationals would be the race date. Soon, a long list of drag racing's best had
committed to the fundraiser, and come race day, over 11,000 spectators packed
the grandstands to their capacity. Top Fuelers, Funny Cars, Pro Stockers, Jet
cars, and Wheelstanders all made appearances at the event. The largest
contingent of supporters came from the ranks of the funny car clan that Reyes
had raced with for many years. Bill Taylor brought his "Super Duster"
with Gary Henderson at the controls, Roland Leong towed in with the
"Hawaiian", and installed fellow Memphian Bobby Rowe behind the wheel.
Bobby Wood's Vega, Kelly Brown in Barry Setzer's Vega, Jake Johnston in one of
Gene Snow's "Rambunctious" Chargers,
Tragically, Dick Harrell would lose his life only two days after the Reyes benefit race while competing in Canada. Harrell's death was the result of a top end crash that was the result of a blown tire. This almost surreal twist of fate drew attention to the ability of the front tires to endure the speeds that funny cars were now capable of achieving. In short order, a new breed of tires capable of sustaining speeds over 200 mph came to be widely used. Top fuel dragsters had been considered drag racing's most brutal and dangerous class, but the introduction of a successful mid-engined dragster by Don Garlits at the beginning of the 71 season changed the safety factor in top fuel for the better. No longer did driver's have to sit behind the volatile supercharged engines that had a penchant for exploding into a shrapnel filled fireball, nor did they have to ride out the race sitting on top of the clutch can and differential. Funny cars soon replaced top fuelers as drag racing's most volatile cars and were given a cautious respect. Virtually as quick and as fast as the dragsters, funny cars were more prone to serious fires with their fiberglass bodies capable of feeding the inferno. Their short wheelbase designs made the handling more erratic as well. The safety factor of all drag cars has improved considerably over the ensuing years, but these characteristics unique to the funny cars are still present today, and give them a reputation as being the most difficult cars to drive well.
In gathering information for this profile, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Reyes and get his take on the era that he was an integral part of. I was pleased to find a likable, pleasant man that gave insight into the vast changes that have come to the drag racing scene over the last thirty years. Reyes told anecdotes of sometimes sleeping in corn fields while enduring the long trips between races, and the not too uncommon practice of having to make use of the transporter's third member to repair a broken rear end in the race car. Real rivalries did exist on the race track, but this was usually put aside off track. He spoke of how some of his fellow competitors would receive other racers as guests in their homes as they crossed the country making race dates. Reyes made a particular point to remember the late John Mulligan, and Dick Harrell, as drivers that "everyone liked". He also made it clear that regardless of the fact that he was injured, he felt strongly that drag racing had been good to him and he obviously enjoyed being a part of it's history.
It also was clear that Reyes has never lost interest in drag racing. Unlike many former drivers who have purposefully stayed away from the race track after retirement, Reyes has campaigned a Super Gas Vega race car in recent years. He became one of the few drivers to ever take on the competition via hand controls. Although that particular race car is no longer in the Reyes garage, he spoke with positive enthusiasm about the virtues of "little guy" drag racing, and wondered aloud about the possibility of locating another car that would be suitable for some casual bracket racing. He is sometimes seen at Memphis Motorsports Park attending an NHRA or "Super Chevy" event, but still holds a soft spot for the more vintage floppers that were a part of his own days as a funny car pioneer. He considers them to be a more exciting type of race car than the current breed of faster yet less diverse funnies that occupy the drag strips of today. Having seen both, I can only agree, and be thankful that Reyes was around to help forge the advent of the original "funny cars".
For additional information on Larry Reyes, click here.
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