In the 1960s, Top Fuel drivers sat behind the engine and the best drivers were measured by much more than their reaction times. The slingshot dragsters didn't have centrifugal clutches, but stock-style spring clutches that made the...
In the 1960s, Top Fuel drivers sat behind the engine and the best drivers were measured by much more than their reaction times. The slingshot dragsters didn't have centrifugal clutches, but stock-style spring clutches that made the driver's ability to feather the throttle and clutch pedals so as to leave the starting line with just the right amount of tire spin the difference between winning and losing. However, unlike performing a quick getaway in a street car, Top Fuel drivers were banging thousands of horsepower onto the pressure plate while sitting behind fire-belching, oil-throwing, eye-watering engines that blocked their vision with sheets of tire smoke from the slicks spinning just inches from their heads.
The front-engined Top Fuel dragsters required drivers who were as fearless as they were skillful, competitors who could not only get the car off the line ahead of everyone else, but who would hold the pedal down to the finish line. One of the best of the era was the late John "the Zookeeper" Mulligan.
Mulligan is best remembered for his pairing with Tim Beebe on the green-striped Beebe & Mulligan dragsters. With their second car, built by Woody Gilmore, they ended a string of six big-meet runner-ups over the previous two years with a win at the 1969 Winternationals. At the U.S. Nationals that year, Mulligan -- who liked having the quickest and fastest car almost more than he did winning -- rocked the sport with a 6.43 that was more than two-tenths quicker than the national record. Sadly, though, Mulligan -- one of the most popular and skillful drivers in drag racing -- was badly burned in a first-round accident at that event and died weeks later.
Before teaming with Beebe in 1967, Mulligan was paired with engine builder and tuner Gene Adams on the Ward & Wayre dragster, then the Adams, Wayre & Mulligan car.
"He wasn't afraid of anything," Adams recalled. "If things weren't going all that great, he still wanted to drive the car. Just think about driving one of those things at night with fire coming out of the headers, tire smoke in your face, and you're sitting behind the supercharger trying to look through the fire and smoke and flames, without traction. The cars today are twice as fast, but much safer."
Carl Olson, who began in Top Fuel with a front-engined dragster in 1968 and won the 1972 Winternationals in a rear-engine design shortly before the end of his driving days, explained, "The trick was to drive with the throttle to keep the car accelerating as rapidly as possible and, hopefully, the tires would dry up at about 800 feet. I compare driving a front-engine Top Fueler to driving a sprint car on dirt. You couldn't make a little move with the wheel and bring the car back into the groove. You could feel the front tires just skipping across the ground."
Olson says of Mulligan, "He stood out from the crowd in two ways. One was that his cars were consistent winners, and the other was that he was a bitchin' guy. He had a great sense of humor and was a practical joker. He personified the era in terms of a carefree lifestyle. He was a very approachable guy with a marvelous personality."
Among Mulligan's accomplishments from 1965 to 1969 are a number of low e.t.s and top speeds: Six of the 20 quickest e.t.s in 1966 and three of the fastest 19 speeds; three of the quickest 13 e.t.s and one of the fastest 14 speeds in 1967; four of the quickest 13 e.t.s and three of the fastest 13 speeds in 1968; his stunning 6.43 in 1969 stood for a year, and he had three of the 15 fastest speeds that year. The Beebe & Mulligan car held the NHRA speed record at 229.59 mph from September 1968 until July 1970.
"He had a real desire to drive a fast car," Adams said. "He loved it. He liked to win, naturally, but he wasn't as thrilled about winning the race as he was about getting low e.t. and top speed. If he won the race, but somebody else was outrunning him, that kind of irritated him."
Former Top Fuel and Funny Car racer Jerry Ruth worked out of Beebe & Mulligan's Garden Grove, Calif., race shop when he was racing in the area.
"Mulligan had a real talent on the starting line," Ruth recalled. "He had developed a rhythm with his right foot and the countdown of the old five-bulb, five-tenths Tree. He would blip the throttle every time a yellow came on and he could catch the green light with the rpm up. He was the only one I ever saw who could do that." NHRA's Top 50 Drivers will be unveiled on NHRA.com and through the pages of National DRAGSTER, in reverse order throughout the 2001 season, with a schedule leading up to the naming of the top driver at the Automobile Club of Southern California NHRA Finals at Pomona Raceway on Nov. 11. As NHRA celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2001, it has emerged as one of the most popular spectator sports, highlighted by a $50 million, 24-event, nationally televised tour. The NHRA has developed into the world's largest motorsports sanctioning body, with more than 80,000 members nationwide, and more than 140 member tracks.