Larry Reyes: Journeyman Funny Car Driver

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 in it's infancy 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 Larry's 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 burgeoning 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.

In short order, Reyes became proficient at piloting drag cars to the point that he drew the attention of west coast racer Tom Sturm. Reyes had his own Plymouth super stocker in 1964, but left it behind to hit the match race trail with Sturm and his 427 powered A/FX Mercury Comet. Reyes says at that time he was relatively unskilled with speed shifting the 4 speed transmissions of the day, but by May of 64 the duo arrived at Lakeland Drag Strip in Memphis and that had all changed. Low eleven second E.T.'s were now standard and were competitive with anyone in the country. While in Memphis, Reyes left a solid positive impression on Larry Coleman and Bill Taylor. They were partners in local transmission repair shops and owners of the Lakeland drag strip. Taylor also had a desire to go match racing with a nitro burning door slammer that was built just for this purpose. After a short stint driving Phil Bonner's "Warbucks" match racer, Reyes wound up being asked to occupy the hot seat of the first "Kingfish" Barracuda. Along with the new ride, Reyes had found a new home. He relocated to Memphis and came to be one of the most feared drivers on the match race trail. As a result, he was paving the way for the popularity of the "Funny Cars" even though they were still evolving into the popular class that they would soon become.

The first "Kingfish" was a deceptively quick machine. It was built to perform at the numerous match races that were the rage at the nations drag strips. These best of three races were particularly popular in the south and the eastern US. John Albright of Memphis constructed the Plymouth Barracuda for Taylor around a tube chassis, and the car was all steel originally. Eventually it would acquire a fiberglass body, even though it maintained a stock appearing wheelbase, and fully functional doors. Power was provided by a then new 426 Chrysler Hemi engine, outfitted with the best speed equipment of the day. This racer was fueled by an alcohol - nitromethane mix that was a very conservative blend. Taylor used only a 28% dose of the liquid horsepower known as "nitro" to give his car an edge in competition. This kept the engine intact as nitromethane was known for it's destructive qualities as much as for its power potential. Reyes was the wheelman, and aided brothers Bill Taylor and Wayne Taylor in maintaining the "Cuda" for the many race dates that came their way. Elapsed times were in the eight second zone at better than 160 mph, which made this team more than competitive with the factory backed A/FX'ers and established a reputation for them as serious competition.

Serious as they may have been, the rest of the match race clan was just as serious and the evolution of the "funny car" was under way. "Dyno" Don Nicholson was under contract with the Lincoln - Mercury division to compete in a factory backed Comet F/C and he along with Jack Chrisman, and Eddie Scartchman, raised the bar in 1965 with the first "flip top" fiberglass bodied cars. Their performance was dominating, and other racers soon followed their lead. By 1967 the "Kingfish" had become a flip top bodied car, with a state of the art Logghe chassis. Reyes and the "fish" remained competitive, but the expense and grind of maintaining a competitive racer was beginning to concern Bill Taylor. A brief flirtation with retirement from the drag racing scene prompted Taylor to sell the "Kingfish" to local racer T.B. Smallwood. The "Kingfish" name went to Smallwood along with the hardware. Taylor was out; for at least a few months.

They say racing gets in your blood, and it never leaves, so Bill Taylor and new partner Pat Collins soon laid plans to return to the drag wars in 1968 with a new racer that would carry Reyes to some of his most prestigious wins. The candy red and gold leaf "Super Cuda" was a fiberglass Barracuda bodied car that was every bit a state of the art 1968 funny car. Built around a Logghe chassis, the flopper was competitive at once, and was soon a threat everywhere it appeared. Curiously, the nitro percentage was still very conservative. Although Taylor had increased the amount of "pop" to a maximum of 55%, this was still a long way off from the aggressive "tip the can" approach being adopted by many funny car racers.

Collins and Reyes took the "Super Cuda" on the road, and 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.

This successful year gave Reyes occasion to consider a solo racing effort. He decided to give it a go, and plugged a fresh nitro guzzling Hemi into a Don Hardy fashioned Barracuda Funny Car, and headed west. The car was getting sorted out at the infamous tracks in Southern California, but before the paint was dry on the glass Cuda body opportunity came knocking at the door. Top Fuel heavy Roland Leong was about to shelve his famous "Hawaiian" slingshot and go Funny Car racing. Leong found Reyes in Keith Black's shop one afternoon, and approached him about taking the helm of the "Hawaiian" funny car. The Logghe-chassied Charger was under construction in late 68 for a debut at the 69 Winternationals in Pomona California. Leong was noted for running top notch, first class machinery that had the best of everything. It was to be a sought after ride, with many of drag racing's hottest shoe's hoping to find themselves behind the butterfly steering wheel of the new car. Reyes seized the opportunity and signed on as Leong's new driver. The barely completed Don Hardy Cuda that Reyes had just started to sort out would soon be in the hands of the Candies & Hughes team, and would eventually become "Miss STP" Paula Murphy's latest quarter mile missile. Thus, the first "Hawaiian" funny car effort came to be, with Leong and Reyes about to show the racing world what they had in store. Both Leong and Reyes drew considerable interest from the racing media as well as funny car racing's continually growing fan base. The alliance with Leong earned Reyes the "Pineapple" tag, which gave him the almost prerequisite driver's nickname during this colorful period of drag racing history. A practice that has almost disappeared today. After several successful shake down runs, The duo took what was arguably the most beautiful funny car to date to it's official coming out party at NHRA's Winternationals.

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. Not too surprising, match race bookings would likely increase as a result of a national event win. The "Hawaiian" team wanted a national event win as a feather in the cap, so the decision was made to return to the NHRA Winternationals for the start of the 1970 season. Reyes wheeled the proven "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.

The 70 season provided many opportunities for Reyes to let his skills as a driver serve him well. At the then new "Gatornationals" in Gainesville Florida, Reyes and Leong were dispatched to the sunshine state by Keith Black to help the Candies & Hughes team get a handle on the ferocious Hemi engines that Black was building for both teams. The freelance efforts worked well, as the duo ran the Candies & Hughes 1969 Cuda to a runner-up finish behind none other than Leonard Hughes in the newest Candies & Hughes 1970 edition flopper. This was the first time in anyone's memory that a race team squared off against one of their own for an eliminator title. The Louisiana based Candies & Hughes team would soon become one the fiercest competitors of the 70 season. Leonard Hughes would reign victorious at the 70 Super Stock Nationals, With Reyes in the runner-up spot, and the C&H team would make their presence known at that year's Indy nationals with a ground pounding 6.80 E.T. to take the top qualifier position. Reyes and Leong would continue their match racing dominance throughout the year. They endured a bumper scraping wheel stand at the Rockford Illinois manufacturer's meet, and would wrap up a successful summer before amicably parting ways just prior to the 1970 NHRA Nationals. Reyes wanted to curtail some of the extensive travel time associated with racing the "Hawaiian", so Roland Leong would compete at the 1970 Nationals with Pat Foster behind the wheel. Leong would go on to numerous victories with a long list of "hired-gun" drivers over the years. Meanwhile, Reyes assumed a slightly less intense schedule as he stepped into Bill Taylor's newest funny car. He made the field at the inaugural "Supernationals" being held at the showplace race track that had just opened in Ontario California. The "Super Duster" went home early on that day due to parts breakage, but Reyes would return to California early in 1971 behind the wheel of one of John Mazmanian's immaculate candy red Barracudas. It was a one-race deal that put Reyes in a quality car for the NHRA Winternationals. He qualified well, and lasted until the second round.

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 a long history with the Memphis drag racers. He previously put in some track time behind the wheel of Coleman's "Super Ford" Torino bodied funny car, as well as the "Kingfish", the "Super Cuda" and the "Super Duster". His relationship with Taylor was lengthy and successful, and the new venture seemed very promising. 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 front tire at speed, a violent crash and spinal cord injury 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, Don "the Shoe" Schumacher, Dick Harrell, Leroy Goldstein with the "Ramchargers" Challenger, Gary Bolger in the "Gold Digger", Mike Burkhart's Chevy, Tim Beebe's "Fighting Irish" Camaro, Roger Lindamood's "Color me Gone" Dodge, Tom Hoover's "White Bear Dodge", The Creasy Bro's."Tyrant" Ford, Fred Goeske, Dick Bourgeois, and Dave Condit's "L.A. Hooker" all came out to show their support for Reyes. When all was said and done, the "Stardust" Barracuda of Don Schumacher came out on top and received a trophy and a handshake from Reyes himself, who was in attendance to witness the generosity of his peers first hand. The event raised $27,000.00; a sizable sum in 1971. The funds went a long way to assist Reyes in a time of need.

Tragically, Dick Harrell would lose his life only two days after the Reyes benefit race while competing in Canada. The accident that caused Harrell's death was also due to a top end crash resulting from a blown front tire. This almost surreal twist of fate drew attention to the inability of commonly used front tires to endure the speeds that funny cars were now capable of achieving. In short order, a new breed of race tires capable of sustaining speeds over 200 mph came to be widely used. In previous years, 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 drivers have to sit behind a volatile supercharged engine 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. However, 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 a dangerous inferno. Their short wheelbase designs made 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 maintained interest in the sport of sprint. In fact, he became one of the few drivers to ever take on the competition via hand controls. After 22 years away from driving at the track, Reyes fielded a Super Gas Vega in the early 90's. 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 he still holds a soft spot for the 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".

Louis KImery