In today's world of prefabricated sports figures, true self-made legends have become increasingly few and far between, especially in the world of high-profile auto racing sanctioning bodies such as NASCAR and NHRA Drag Racing. All one has to do is take a listen to what goes on in Winner's Circle and top-end interviews; they're smothered in sponsor-laden dialogue that removes most, if not all, spontaneity from what might have been a moment of unrehearsed jubilance. Sure, the day's winner is truly happy to take home the trophy and the buckets of corporate cash that come with it, but one has to wonder what he or she might have said if the television interviews were just a little less, well ... rehearsed.
One thing we do know--yesterday's drag racing stars would have a difficult time adapting to the corporate expectations of today's motorsports sponsors. Take, for example, Jungle Jim Liberman. Here's a guy who took a completely unorthodox approach to drag racing and ultimately became the sport's most well-known and admired figure of the late 1960s and most of the 1970s. His 1,000-foot-long burnouts were his trademark, and his "never lift" approach to Funny Car racing made him a fan favorite throughout his all-too-short driving career.
Russell James Liberman didn't gain fame by racking up the most national event victories. Nope. The fact is he only had one, and that came at the '75 NHRA Summernationals. Jungle gained notoriety by being the most feared Funny Car driver of the match racing circuit. Unfortunately, he lost his life on September 9, 1977, when he was involved in a head-on collision with a SEPTA bus. Jungle was just 32 years old.
What many people might not know is that Jungle's first desire wasn't to go fast in a Funny Car; he was more interested in having his race cars run flawlessly. That meant driving was his only means of knowing the car's mechanical behavior. "No one can tell me what the car is doing but myself, so I have to drive," said Jungle in a '60s Super Stock and Drag Racing Illustrated magazine interview.
Later in his career Jim was also known for his off-track antics, but that partying behavior never interfered with his on-track ability to drive a Funny Car and put on the best show in drag racing. Many of the stories told over the years about Jungle Jim are outrageous, crazy, and just plain insane, but according to those who were there, most of them are true.
One example was when Jungle was on his way to qualifying No. 4 at Old Bridge Township Raceway, the site of his only national event victory. Jungle unintentionally carried the front wheels to half-track in a 6.37, 218.44-mph run. Keep in mind, most any other driver would have naturally lifted and aborted the run. Not Jungle; it just wasn't his style.