The Houndog Legend

Drag and Custom News, September 1980

The Funny Cars have really taken a grip on the British drag racing circuit in recent years and today they are probably the biggest single draw at Santa Pod Raceway.

The majority of the floppers in this country at the moment have been imported, at one time or another, from the States, for there are only a small handful of people over this side of the puddle who are capable of building such a vehicle to Stateside standards. Nobby Hills is one such person. His latest creation, the Challenger bodies SLDO Houndog, which made its debut at the Pod last November, is nothing less than a masterpiece, a triumph in the fine art of competitive car design and construction.

Owen Haywards first Funny Car drive was in the ex-Paula Murphy STP Car, which was purchased from the visiting US star in the mid Seventies. He took to the car like a duck takes to water and was soon campaigning the Plymouyth Duster bodied flopper as Houndog 7, alongside Nobby’s other Fuel Car, the Houndog 8 digger – the last Hills Fueller to date.

Originally, the Plymouth was campaigned in the STP livery, including a gold leaf paint job, but the Houndog colours of blue and red were eventually applied to match the dragster. Much as the team enjoyed running a two-car show, however, the passage of time was having a detrimental effect on the two cars and the ever changing, always progressive, face of competitive drag racing was rendering them somewhat dated.

 It became apparent to Owen and Nobby, sometime in late ’76 – early ’77 that a new ‘Dog wouldn’t come amiss and having sharpened their teeth on the Duster, they figured they’d concentrate on Funny Car, at least for the foreseeable future. What they couldn’t foresee was the premature demise of Houndog 7 in a horrendously spectacular crash during the 1977 August Bank Holiday meet.

Driving Houndog in the pit lane at Santa Pod against the Maneater Fueller of Roz Prior, Owen found himself obliged to position the Funny Car off-centre, in order to avoid an oil down. What he didn’t realise though, was that only one huge rear slick was on the super-traction start line surface, whereas the other rested on virgin asphalt.

Even though the half shafts used in the car were the same type Garlits had on board his Fuel Dragster, they could not meet the strain imposed on them by the phenomenal difference in traction as Owen hooked up the power. When a half shaft snaps on a vehicle capable of 0 to 100mph in around one second, the driver can wave goodbye to stability. So it was with Mr Hayward, who for the next few moments must have been fervently wishing that he’d stayed in bed that morning, as he found himself side-on, back-on, top-on and to paraphrase the Clint Eastwood movie every which way but straight, in relation to his intended direction.

The fibre-glass was ripped unceremoniously from the Duster as it somersaulted and crunched down all but the last fifty yards of the quarter mile – even so, Owen remained not only alive but virtually unscathed – apart from two lovely black eyes – within the ultra-protective cocoon of the roll cage.

Long before this incident, however, the team had commenced work on Houndog 9, which was to be as perfect an example of Funny Car construction as the combined talents of Nobby Hills, Owen Hayward, the Houndog crew and Fibre Glass Repairs could make it.

Having discarded the original idea of a Firebird based flopper, Nobby and the guys settled for one of FGR’s tried and tested Chevrolet Vega bodies, modified to the team’s particular specifications. First of all the body was bisected and a wedge extracted from the centre, making the car six inches narrower at the sharp end, tapering back to a standard width at the rear.

The screen was shifted back by 12 inches, leaving it behind the line of the bug catcher and thus avoiding the need for a cut-out in the actual screen itself, thereby making the car both safer and aerodynamically smoother. The rear spoiler, too, was another item which was modified to improve the air flow at speeds in excess of 200mph.

Finally, back at the front end, the conversion to quad headlights complimented the other radical modifications perfectly, bringing it right up to current Stateside standards in the looks department, ably assisted by a superb paint job, applied to perfection by Street Customs. 

While the livery wasn’t exactly original, it did serve admirably the now familiar motif of SLD Olding, the country’s major, multi-franchise distributors of heavy earth-moving and construction equipment, who were now backing the team composed largely, as it was, of their employees.

The chassis across which this masterpiece was draped was built by the Houndog team, notably Nobby Hills, who creates a good chassis like my mum makes Steak and Kidney pie – perfect every time. Constructed entirely from 18 gauge chrome moly T45 tubing (the chassis, not the pies), the frame featured four sizes of tubing – 1 and 5/8in the case of the bottom rails, with the top rails ranging from 1 ½ at the back, through 1 3/8 and 1 ¼ and at the front.

The roll cage was built using 1 and 5/8 x 10g tubing and housed a fully upholstered seat with Simpson safety harness. Nesting within the whole issue was the workhorse of which great things were expected, a 426 Chrysler V8 bored and stroked out to 484 cubic inches, topped by an Ed Pink supercharger and Enderle injection.

The driveline featured a Lenco two speed underdrive gearbox, complete with mag third member and specially selected, super strong half shafts. On the end of each axel, Hurst / Airheart discs and callipers accompanied Cragar Super trick Wheels, 15 x 16 at the rear and 3 ½ x 15 at the front, with rubber supplied by Goodyear and M&H respectively.

Some set up eh? And a show winner too, taking the comp honours at many a display of custom and drag machinery, earning some prize money to go towards its running costs. The car didn’t do too bad on the strip either, although at first the team were plagued by a faulty crank, which they couldn’t afford to replace. It takes a lot of bottle to climb back in a fuel car and hunt for low sixes after somersaulting into near oblivion as Owen did, an awful lot of bottle.

If you think for one moment Mr Hayward is to be found wanting in the courage department, think again and make a better job of it this time. He very quickly had the newie right in the groove and gunning hell for leather down the quarter mile, blasting his way into the record books as the pilot of the quickest British built Funny Car to date.

As long as Nobby Hills has enough strength to wield his welding gear, the Houndog legend will go on, getting progressively better all the time. After a brief rest on his haunches (if you can call the trauma of running a Fuel Car “resting on your haunches”), Nobby told his team to brace themselves for another new flopper, the blueprints for which were already pinned neatly to the drawing board in his head.

With his heart set very firmly on the acquisition of a Firebird body for the newie, the guv’nor set forth on his annual trip to the States, where he saw…Ken Veney’s Challenger-bodied Funny and fell in love with it.

Relinquishing for a second time the originally intended shell, Nobby ordered the Dodge from Ken Cox and came home to wait its arrival and amend the design accordingly. When the body came, dissected to facilitate shippage, the team fell upon it and stitched it back together, modifying the rear spoiler to suit their requirements at the same time.

The body was duly mated to Nobby’s latest chassis, a new engine and running gear were added and the car was “coloured” in time to make its debut at the November ’79 Fireworks meet at Santa Pod, when it was shoed to a very creditable 7.14s/195.6mph by Owen “The Natural” Hayward.

If I made the birth of Houndog 10 sound a breeze, don’t be misled, Funny Cars don’t come in kits, not like the ‘Dog they don’t anyway. We’re talking about a maestro here, backed up by 17years of experience, the lessons learnt from building a dozen drag racing machines and the skilled teamwork of Owen Hayward, Brett Sheriff and Malcolm Brett.

That chassis is perfect – built for strength- deliberately basic but very functional and its handling qualities have been given the full stamp of approval by Owen; after all he should know. Okay so that was quite an achievement, granted, but they just had to buy the engine and slip it in, right? Wrong. You see, Nobby’s got his own ideas about engines and there’s no one complete, off the shelf Fuel motor that he totally likes, so he buys what he recons is the best of everything and moulds them into his ideal set-up, a “Nobby Hills engine”.

Take the block – Nobby figures Kith Black alloys are top, so that’s what he got, with a Black crank and Black rods. The pistons though are Ed Pink items, while the original heads were machined by Nobby from stock, he also made the headers- from scratch.

Injection is Enderle, blower by Littlefield or Pink, as they’ve got both. Crower made the cam, Donovan the cam-drive and Crager the inlet manifold. Transmission is by way of a two-speed Lenco, Crowerglide clutch and Lenco / Ford rear end, with magnesium centre section.

When you consider that a set of sixteen valves costs Nobby around 300 ackers, you’ll perhaps begin the appreciate the expense in time effort and money that went – and goes – into Houndog 10. But I haven’t finished yet. Weight saving has been paid more than a passing glance in the construction of the car.

For a start the new alloy motor weighs 133lbs, less than the old iron-block. That’s virtually equivalent to running the car without a pilot to “weigh it down”. Furthermore some calorie counting has been exercised in the fire equipment by adapting the system in order to cut out non-essential paraphernalia, normally employed in setting off remote fire extinguishers within the cockpit.

Although there is an abundance of fire extinguishers around the car, they have been re-positioned to obviate the use of cables, without sacrificing any degree of safety. Next time you are in the pits at the Pod, check out those little touches, look closely though it takes far more than a cursory glance to appreciate the workmanship that has gone into is construction.

Having taken a closer look at the car, you won’t have missed the finer points of that excellent paint scheme, which looks good from any distance. Take a bow, Ron Piacrdo of Highway Patrol and The Force fame, together with his ace airbrush man, Steve Davis, who does the signwriting and a nice line in freehand pinstriping. Ron has applied prize winning paint schemes not just to Houndog, but also Stardust, Warlock, The Magician and the new Vanishing Point, no less. You don’t need me to tell you that these are four of the prettiest cars currently pounding the quarter mile and the show circuit.

So you here you have the team of devotees who spend virtually all their spare cash and all their spare time in running a top Funny Car, with all the attendant risk of serious injury, financial destruction and frayed nerve ends. They accept breakages costing hundreds of pounds with a philosophical shrug, tear down and rebuild engines without a second thought and take the rough, which can be very rough, with the smooth, which sometime never makes itself apparent. 

And yet you’ll never catch Owen cradling his head in his hands, anymore than you’ll find Nobby cursing the day he saw his first fuel car burnout. Why ? Because they love it, they’re unwinding, doing their own thing.

This, to the Houndog team, is their stamp collection, their allotment garden, their round of golf. They’ve worked hard all week, keeping their noses to their respective grindstones and now they don’t have to account to anybody for the time they spend enjoying themselves doing what turns them on – drag racing. It’s a question of unleashing the excess aggression, born of modern living, and you’d be hard pushed to find a better way of releasing aggression than storming down the quarter mile in a Fuel Funny car, with thunder in your heart and two thousand ponies under your fire-proofed right foot.

As the works manager of SLDO, Owen lives the decision-loaded, temper taxing life, which, without a release valve, can lead to severe discontent. Talk to him at the raceway and you’ll find a quiet-spoken, unassuming guy rapping with you behind a shy smile and purposeful eyes. Strap him into a Funny Car and he becomes part of it. He listens to the big V8 and understands it, thinks with the car, pumps in the power, grabs the tarmac and get the best from the 484 cubes of metal muscle, win or lose. And he loves every millisecond of it.

If I make Owen Hayward to sound like a Jekyll and Hyde or Clark Kent and Superman double character, I’ve probably misled you. Sure, he’s different in the hotseat, same as you or I might be if we had the guts to climb in there and do it in the first place, it’s just that he does what he’s there far better than you or I probably could.

Despite the talents, though, Owen remains an approachable and likeable person, the kind of guy who’d probably apologise to you, if your trolley bumped into his in Sainsbury’s. Dark hared, 5’10 ½” tall and 10 ½ stone in weight, the 32 year old Fuel Pilot is very happily married to the lovely Monica and he’s naturally devoted to his 18-month old son Paul, who when he’s old enough to understand what all the noise is about, will probably want to grow up just like dad.

On the eve of finals day at a Pod meeting, providing the weather is fine, you’ll like as not find the three Haywards sitting around one of Nobby Hills’ barbeques beside the big man’s caravan with Nobby himself, his wife Ann and little Jodie-Lou Hills, whose second birthday isn’t so far off now.

From time to time, the sound of beer cans being opened will accompany the murmur of voices and the country music as the relax beside the glowing charcoal, shooting the breeze. It’s a peaceful, idyllic scene, and it sets the team up well for the rigours of the day ahead.

Talking of finals days, the Houndog boys have given rather a good account of themselves so far, without leaning on the engine at all hard. In fact, Owen qualified top in Funny car at the first three Pod meetings and now seems able to hit the mid to low sixes whenever he likes. He holds the European terminal speed record, courtesy of a 6.5/234.38 (!) blast in Sweden recently….

Paul Garland
Drag and Custom News September 1980

(Pictures from file, not original article)