Custom Car August 1978

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Nobby Hills is to Houndog what Isaac Newton is to Newtons third law of gravity: ie the latter could hardly exist without the former. Or something. He builds the cars, nurses them to perfection, sets them up to run hard and fast and puts them back together again when they go wrong. Sure, heís got one of the best teams in the business behind him and driver Owen Hayward isnít known as "The Natural" for nothing, but I don't think the rest of the Houndoggers would begrudge the fact that Nobby is Houndog racing.

In all heís run nine cars over the years, and the teams progress has in many ways echoed the development of dragging in this country. Rung one of the ladder, the first Houndog of all hit the limelight at the 1965 International Drag Festival. During the previous year an all star American touring team had come over to show us just what drag racing was all about, and the upshot was a whole fleet of British built rails and altereds. Drag racing suddenly became a real live sport rather than something you saw in Frankie Avalon movies or on the pages of Hot Rod. Nobby was quick off the mark with a slingshot dragster powered by a blows, carbureted Jaguar engine which used - believe it or not - lorry tyres on the back, because slicks were hard to come by and ultra-expensive in those early days. Not the last word in sleek sophistication sure, but then again the first American dragsters werenít concours díelegence contenders.

Six rails later and one funny car later the ultra-immaculate race car which graces our cover and centrespread was born, and if any finesses was lacking in that first Houndog, it certainly isnít lacking in number nine.

Building a new funny car from scratch is perhaps the most difficult undertaking in drag racing. For starters youíve got to fabricate a relatively short wheelbase chassis capable of taking the stress of 220mph running, and the sort of freakish torque loadings that a 2000bhp motor can impose. Then, with the driver sitting almost on top of that grenade-like motor, youíve got to protect him from the sort of blower explosions which can turn a funny car into a blazing fireball in milliseconds. Finally the whole issue has to be clothed in a light glassfibre body shell that has to look vaguely like a production saloon, while being aerodynamically stable at over three times the legal speed limit. Hardly a job for the novice, but then again there wasnít much the team didnít know about running funny cars successfully when the idea of building Houndog Nine first came up last season.

At the time Nobby was running a two-car team, on paper at least, with the ex-Paula Murphy STP Plymouth funny which originally came to these shores in 1973, backed up by the teamís own rear-engined Pro-Fuel digger. I say on paper, because both cars were getting somewhat long in the tooth, and along with a long run of lousy luck and engine problems meant that one or other was invariable sidelined at most meetings. Despite the age of the funny, Nobbyís skill and Owenís driving abilities had kept it out among the frontrunners, so the logical course of action seemed to be to retire both cars and concentrate on an ultra modern state of the art flopper.

In the case of the old funny, fate took a hand when the car was totaled in a horrific accident at the 1977 SPR August Bank Holiday Meet. In a match race against Roz Prior, a half shaft - supposedly indestructible according to its American manufactures - sheared in two just off the line. In a funny car under full power this has the same effect as going into an insto 90 degree turn, and that's bad news when youíre running 17 inch slicks and a locked differential. Despite prodigious efforts on Owenís part, the car went completely out of control, broadsiding into the safety barrier and rolled end over end before coming to a rest; a twisted heap of jagged metal and cracked glassfibre. In a normal road going car that sort of accident wouldnít have left much work for the ambulance men to do, but thanks to the stringent regulations governing the construction of drag racing roll cages, Owen was pulled out of the wreckage unconscious, but essentially unhurt. Mind you, he had the sort of head ache that's normally only acquired after a bottle or two of scotch followed by about 14 pints of best bitter......

With construction of the new car already underway, the crash wasnít too much of a blow to the team. The only major component which they'd intended to transfer from the old funny was the blown, injected Milodon engine, and apart from a cracked bugcatcher this emerged virtually unscathed, so they were still in business. Having said that thereís still a world of difference between talking about building something as complex as a funny car an actually getting down to building one. Where do you start? In the Houndog teamís case the body seemed as good a place as any.

Nobby originally planned to have a Firebird shell for the new car, but because there simply arenít any Firebird funnies this side of the Atlantic and the cost of importing a Ďglass body from America would have been somewhere on the wrong side of astronomical, he settled for one of Fibre Glass Repairsí ubiquitous Vega bodies, as featured on the Gladiator and Liz and Ollie Burnís flopper.

It doesnít take an intimate knowledge of funny car design to know that the Houndog Nine body differs from the Gladiators considerably. This is down to some heavy duty chopping and reworking on the teams part. For starters they took a V-shaped slice out of the middle of the body, sticking the two halves back together again so the front endís now some six inches narrower that the rear. Then the line of the windscreen was shifted back some 12 inches so that instead of poking up through the screen, the bug catcher now sticks neatly up through the front decking. The rear spoiler was also redesigned and blended into the overall lines of the car, and the front wheel arch bubbles are new items, which accounts for the carís ultra-mean appearance. Finally the existing double headlamp front end was brought bang up to date as a quad headlamp moulding. A cosmetic item sure, but it helps make the car look something from the pages of an American magazine, circ 1978.

The chassis is a combination of Nobby and the teamís considerable experience and current Stateside practice. Again the end product looks as if it should have a Sarte sticker on it. Itís constructed entirely out of 18 gauge chrome moly T45 tubing with 15/8 inch bottom rails, and top rails which start out at 11/2 inch towards the back and taper down to 13/8 inch at the front-end. Details worth noting are the beautifully crafted independent front suspension with P and S spindles and steering box, and the combined ballast weight roller which sits low down at the very front of the car. Needless to say, rollover protection figures heavily in the chassis design, and this is taken car of by means of a beefy 1 5/8 inch by ten gauge tube rollcage, plus a carefully contoured close-fitting seat and fireproof Simpson safety harness.

At present the car runs something of a bitza engine, but Nobbyís hoping for a new half inch stroker 484 Milodon short block in the not-too-distant futures. Superchargerís an Ed Pink unit, topped by an Enderle injection system, and a set of very clean looking home built double skinned headers should minimize the risk of any damaging oil fires. Driveline components consist of a Lenco two speeder with a reverser and a super-tuff Lenco rear axle mit magnesium third member and Hurst-Airheart disc and calipers. Youíll get some idea of the astronomical cost of building and running a funny car when I tell you that the cost of the Lenco axle alone was £1800, so if you wince at the price of admission to drag meets, bear in mind that this, in part, is where the moneyís going.

If you want an object lesson in detailing, take a look at the chromed tubular wheelie bars with their teflon buttons instead of castors, or the tube body braces which are all but invisible unless you look for them, but, nevertheless are beautifully finished. And then there's the body paneling in black adonised alloy which completely seals off the engine from the drivers compartment with the lid down, or the neat grab handle which operates the front body latch. That's the sort of class which wins shows, which maybe accounts for Houndog Nine winning Best Comp Car at the last CC show.

Nitro is carried in an 11.25 gallon fuel tank which, in line with current US practice, sits forward of the front axel and - just in case a mishap should occur - there's three separate Fireater systems on board. Wheels are Crager Super Tricks all round, with M&H rubber up front and monstro 35.4 x 16 x 17 Goodyear slicks at the back.

Having just built a gem of a car, Nobby wasn't about to spoil it with some second rate paintwork, so he trucked the body off to Malcolm Springham of Street Custom (number's Harlow (0279) 723167 custom paint freaks), and left Malc to come up with a classic colour scheme that owes more than a little to one D Prudhomme. The livery doesn't exactly seem to have been unlucky for the Snake, so maybe Nobby is on to a good thing.

In case you didn't notice, the car's main sponsors are SLD Olding, one of the country's biggest distributors of heavy earth moving and construction equipment. In fact Nobby, Owen and mechanic Alan Bates all work for SLD and when they're not busily engaged in selling and maintaining everything from giant earthmovers to dumper trucks that look as if they could shift the Isle of Wight in one go, they work on the car in a corner of the firm's cavernous depot. The only member of the team who doesn't work fro SLD is the latest addition, Brett Sherriff, but you can't have everything can you?

So far, due to the combined efforts of Britain's wonderfully changeable weather and the lack of a first class engine, Houndog Nine hasn't really had a chance to show its fill potential. However a best ET of 6.93, the best speed of 218mph and a close fought battle with Dennis Priddle in the finals of the Spring Bank Holiday Big Go, certainly point the way ahead. What isn't in doubt is that Nobby and his team have come up with one of the most flawless funny cars around, and I include both sides of the Atlantic in that summation.

Dave Hamill
Custom Car, August 1978

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