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1968 Chevy Camaro - When Funny Cars Weren't That Funny

Super Chevy Takes A Look At Bruce Larson's Original Rat-Powered Camaro Funny Car.

Rod Short Sep 1, 2010

Old attics, basements, garages, and closets can hold a host of wonders. If there are any musty old car magazines there, you might just find a photo and caption about a guy named Bruce Larson with one of his Funny Cars. While racing a variety of Chevys with their patriotic paint schemes and the "USA-1" moniker, Larson gave the Bow Tie boys a lot to cheer about wherever he match raced.

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It all started with a 14-year-old boy with an old hot rod back on the streets of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. When the NHRA held an event in Linden, New Jersey, back in 1954, he was there with a car that would run a speed of about 90 mph. Young Larson was hooked. In '58, he stepped up to an Oldsmobile, and then a couple of years later he was behind the wheel of a gasser known as "Mr. Clean." Subsequent cars included a '62 lightweight Galaxie, and then an AA/SP Cobra that he ran in NHRA's sport car classes.

"I was working for a Chevrolet dealer then," Larson says. "I was tuning the Cobra on their dynamometer when Greg Sutliff, the dealership's owner, came to me and said, 'Don't you think you should be racing a Chevrolet?' "

That opened the door to a 20-year relationship with Sutliff Chevrolet as Larson's primary sponsor, beginning with a '66 Chevelle that was built by Charlie Lloyd of Custom Boat Builders in Pennsylvania. Constructed of box tube framing with bolt-on fiberglass panels, this car was typical of many of the other early Funny Cars of its day with its quickest times in the 8-second range with speeds around 180 mph in the quarter-mile.

"I ran the '66 for a year before we upgraded it to a '67 body style," Larson says about his first Funny Car, which rests today in Don Garlit's Museum of Drag Racing. "We won Bakersfield in 1967 with that car. By the end of 1967, I was getting upstaged by the Logghe chassis'd cars that Ford Motor Company had built for Nicholson, Schartman, Chrisman, and a couple of other guys. So I ordered a '68 Logghe car and went out there over the winter of 1967 to hang around and help out with construction of the car. I learned an awful lot about fabrication that I've used ever since then."

Logghe originally built this car with a 120-inch wheelbase and coilover shocks on all four corners. Racers found, however, that the cars became pretty skittish on the top end as speeds approached 200 mph. The Logghe brothers eventually decided that the problem was with the rear suspension, so modification kits were sent out for all the cars like this in the midst of the '68 season to convert them over to a solid rear suspension.

B&M Fiberglass in Ohio formed the '68 Camaro body, which still remains on the car to this day. Nearly a quarter of an inch thick, it's quite heavy by today's standards, but very strong. The car was painted right in the Sutliff's Chevrolet body shop by Jim Coy, while a local sign painter named Pat Thornton did the lettering. Variations on that original USA-1 graphics theme graced many of Larson's cars for years afterward.

This Camaro represented a big step forward for Larson, not only because it was a Logghe car, but also since it was Larson's first supercharged machine as well. It was also unique that, in a world dominated by Hemi- and SOHC Ford-powered cars, Larson was running with a factory 427 Chevy engine that he built himself with some help from Don Milletics. With a Hampton 6-71 blower, some healthy shots of nitro, and a Dana 60 rearend packing 4.11 gears, Larson ran as quick as a 7.33 and as fast as 201.78 mph with most of his passes in the 7.40-second range at 2,200 pounds. While the Hemi cars were running about a tenth and a half quicker by the end of the '60s, Larson was still successful in match racing despite running a more conservative tune-up in order to save parts.

"I made a mistake mixing the nitro and split the block in half in running that number," Larson says rather sheepishly, "but it was a legitimate number. At the time, it was about a tenth quicker than what anyone else had run. A lot of manufacturer's used that in their ads.

"I had a couple of frightening experiences with this car," he says. "In 1969, I was racing against Dickie Harrell in the finals at the York Super Stock Nationals. We were getting close to running 200 mph then, and I lost the left front tire right in the traps. The tire went flying up through the fiberglass fender, but I was lucky enough to keep control of the car. We didn't know what caused it really, so we decided to go from the Pirelli to the Michelin tire because I thought it sounded like a better name. The next year we went to Indy with the car with the same chassis and blew another tire-the Michelin. Marvin Riffkin from M&H came up with a four-ply nylon tire that was a little heavy, but it was a lot stronger than the Renault one-ply radial we were running. I wrote a letter to NHRA telling them about the findings and my two experiences. They wrote back at the time saying they didn't want to get involved in it so they wouldn't offend the tire manufacturers. Shortly after that, Dickie Harrell was killed with the same happening and Larry Reyes was paralyzed with the same thing happening. They just wouldn't pay attention to the findings that we had."

Larson ran this car with success at many match races up and down the East Coast and won the Super Stock Nationals one year, which was one of the most prestigious independent events of the time. In 1970, Larson updated the look of the car with a newer Camaro body and continued to run this chassis until 1971. At that point, it was replaced by a new Logghe Stage III narrow chassis with a mini Camaro body on it. The old chassis was then sold with the '70 Camaro body on it while the '68 body remained in his shop.

"You think that you're done with that car and you just move on to something new," Larson says when asked about selling the Camaro. "Many years later, I began to realize the value of the older nostalgia cars, so around 1994-95 I found the car and bought it back. It was restored by 1996. That's pretty much what I did with all my cars. I'd sell them and then years later I'd want them back. I was fortunate enough to get the good cars back".

Larson continued to match race throughout the '70s before securing a sponsorship from Sentry gauges in '88. With Maynard Yingst as his crew chief, Larson won the NHRA Funny Car title in '89 with an Oldsmobile-bodied machine. Sentry pulled its deal in '90, yet Larson finished third in NHRA championship points that year despite running on half the budget that he had in '89.

After going through a number of efforts to secure a new sponsor, Larson hung up his helmet only to be called out of retirement by Garlits. Together, Larson and Garlits ran a limited schedule in Top Fuel before finally pulling the plug altogether in '95. With newfound time on his hands, Larson turned to finding and restoring some of the cars that served him so well earlier in his career. That's when this car reentered his life.

"I thought about nostalgia racing when I finished this car, but there really wasn't much of an opportunity to race with the guys that I used to run against," Larson says. "I wasn't interested in running against what I called kids who found old cars. So all I wanted to do was just display the car. I had opportunities with the promoters to make exhibition runs. We were allowed to make eighth-mile passes without welding a bunch of tubes in the car, which I didn't want to do, because I wanted to keep the car 100 percent authentic. I was able to do that for quite a few years, Now I'm back to just doing cackle fests with the car, which are very popular.

"The best memories were the fun with all the people and the times I spent with all the guys," Larson says. "It was much more down to earth and a lot more fun," he says. "I think it would be nice if it got back to that, but it never will."

Maybe not, but as long as those memories remain, those days won't seem so far away.



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