Photo by Steve Reyes.
Though it’s been 40 years since “Jungle Jim” Liberman died, the impression he left on the sport of drag racing – particularly among funny car fans – through his incessant touring, his stagecraft, and his attention-grabbing cars remains today, which likely accounts for Liberman’s 1973 Vega making it to the top three in the NHRA’s top 20 funny car countdown.
Liberman, who started racing in stock classes in 1964, quickly switched to funny cars, perhaps because their outrageous appearances matched his flamboyant style. As those who knew him would attest, all the stories about Liberman – especially the wilder ones – were true, and his antics bled over to the dragstrip with fire burnouts, a never-lift attitude, high-speed reversals to the starting line, and, of course, “Jungle Pam” Hardy as his on-track assistant.
Actual competition, however, wasn’t really Liberman’s bag: In more than a decade of professional racing, he notched just one NHRA win, at the 1975 Summernationals in Englishtown, New Jersey. Instead, Liberman threw himself into match racing and by the latter half of the 1960s had multiple cars putting on shows across the country.
Almost all of Liberman’s cars – sponsored by Revell and wearing the Chevrolet bowtie – gained some fame thanks to the bright colors and cartoony graphics Liberman had applied to them. The Vega, as Jim Donnelly wrote in Hemmings Muscle Machines #9, June 2004, “was the car that carried Jungle Jim Liberman during his most prolific years as a barnstorming thespian. It’s a treasured bit of history to those who revere the old match-race years.”
Atop a Romeo Palamides-built chassis Liberman mounted a Ron Pellegrini-molded stretched fiberglass Vega funny car body painted by Bob Gerdes and lettered by Jules Baret. A Keith Black Hemi sipping nitro through a Hilborn injection unit and a GMC 6-71 blower provided the power.
Photo via Revell.
Liberman only ran the Vega for a couple seasons before selling it to Nick Bonifante Sr., who grafted a 1974 Vega front end to it and ran it as the U.S. Male. Decades later, after spotting the Vega listed for sale in Hemmings Motor News, Don Garlits bought it and restored it back to Jungle Jim livery with another Keith Black Hemi under the flip-top body.
Liberman died in 1977 while driving his Corvette in
New Jersey Pennsylvania, but when the NHRA decided to put together its list of the top 20 funny cars for the 50th anniversary of that breed of drag cars, fans voted it into the top three alongside Dan Pulde’s “War Eagle” 1977 Pontiac Trans Am and John Force’s 1995 Pontiac Firebird. Similarly, he was recognized as number 17 on the NHRA’s list of its top 50 drivers in 2001.
Among the other funny cars in the top 20 list: Don Prudhomme’s Hot Wheels 1970 Barracuda, Don Nicholson’s “Eliminator” 1966 Comet, the Chi-Town Hustler 1969 Dodge Charger, the Ramchargers 1970 Dodge Challenger, Danny Ongais and Mickey Thompson’s 1969 Mustang, Prudhomme’s Pepsi Challenger 1982 Trans Am, and Jack Chrisman’s 1967 Comet.
The NHRA will announce which of the three finalists topped their list at its remaining events this year, starting with the annual NHRA Nationals this weekend in Las Vegas. For more information on the list and to view the remaining cars on it, visit NHRA.com.