Yes, Wheelz, it is! Absolutely breathtaking finish...my favorite!
My pick for Racers of the Week are Billy Bunch, Nick Canton and Pat Doherty, all from Galveston, Texas. This is the story of 2 Funny Cars which ran the same chassis and body: The Islander, then The Beach Bandit. I spent some time chatting with these guys over the last month, and they gave me some amazing facts and information about this car.
The Islander, then The Beach Bandit ran around the country, primarily in Texas and once in Mexico, between 1972 and 1981 before it was sold to a track owner in Louisiana and after that they lost track of whatever happened to it, but my bet is that it's still out there running somewhere as a sportsman car. It was built to last.
I visited Billy a couple of weeks ago at his home in Bayou Vista, and much to my amazement, he took me on an incredible ride through his career as a drag racer. I've known Billy for a long time, and I knew he was a hot rodding legend in this region, but I had no idea of all that he did over 40 years. I saw him race in the mid-60s here in Houston with his orange C/Altered '32 Ford coupe and when Billy Bunch pulled up to the line, the whole place stood at attention to watch his runs. He was virtually unbeatable with that car with one exception: John Smallwoods, a local taxidermist, had a Dragmaster car with an identical engine to Billy's and he told me it took years before he was able to barely sneak by him in a final round. But other than that thorn in Billy's side, I'm talking about a quiet, soft-spoken, unassuming fellow who you'd never think was responsible for some of the most ferocious competition hot rods that ever laid their slicks down on a drag strip.
Billy won the AHRA Divison 4 championship in 1960 with a home-built Anglia sedan. He saved the trophy. It's on a display in the foyer of his home along with a photo of him in the winner's circle with that car. He told me he got rid of all his other trophies because he didn't have room for them anymore. He got out his scrapbook and took me through all of his cars and all of his races, and I was absolutely knocked out by all that he did. I could spend an entire night talking about Billy Bunch and his hot rodding talent. He builds Deuce Coupe Street Rods now; taking his time and paying attention to detail above and beyond anything I've ever seen. He can't keep 'em because people keep buying them from him, offering him more money than he could turn down no matter how much he liked his cars.
Billy decided to go Funny Car racing in 1973. He went to Dallas and bought Mike Burkhart's '71 Camaro with a Don Hardy chassis. He put his trademark injected big block Chevy on nitro in it and ran it as an A/FC. He told me he did fire burnouts and ran the car at Eastex, La Platte, Crowley, Tyler, Temple, Dickinson, San Antonio, and Monterrey, Mexico where they put him and the 6-car field on a boulevard with a median and no crowd barriers.
He told the guy who managed this race that the crowd was standing in his lane at the end of the track, and the guy said no worried, they'll move out of the way when you make your run. Sure enough, when he made his run, they parted like the Red Sea, but he was still very concerned about the safety of that race. He didn't hit anybody, by the way.
His best time with the car was a 7.56 at 176 mph. After a couple of years, he wanted to go faster so he went to California and bought a new Vega, so the first Islander was expendable. Along comes 2 local hot rodders, Nick Canton and Pat Doherty. Pat is my cousin Phyllis Ludgate Doherty's husband and he was a successful businessman in Galveston, running the Exxon station on Seawall Boulevard in Galveston, which did landmark business to say the least. With Pat tuning and Nick driving, they renamed the car The Beach Bandit. Pat put a blower on it and with nitro in the tank, they went drag racing.
One thing, though. Nick needed to get licensed. So they went to Alamo Dragway in San Antonio to make Nick's licensing runs. Nick said the car was a real handful with a blown engine on nitro in it. He blasted off the line, got sideways, got it straightened out, weaved back and forth across the track, took out the timing cones, and by the time he got it stopped he said he needed the seat of his pants cleaned out. He was sitting there halfway down the shutdown area, totally bummed out because he knew he'd just blown his opportunity to get and AHRA competition license. Then the track manager showed up. Nick was apologizing to him for that dreadful run, and the guy smiled and handed him his competition license.
When our cousin Carol got married in 1978, I stayed up all night hanging out with Pat and he took me through a complete technical analysis of the car and told me bone-chilling stories of their exploits. I never forgot that night and Pat's dedication to that car and to Nick. He was having the time of his life doing it.
Pat and Nick ran the car for the next 5 years, anywhere and everywhere there was a race to participate in. Their shot at the big time came in 1979 when they went to the AHRA World Finals at Green Valley Raceway just outside of Dallas. They ran good. They ended up in the final round and faced Gene Snow in the other lane. They'd had engine problems that weekend but still managed to make it to the trophy run, but as Nick told me, Gene Snow blew their doors off to say the least. But it was a proud moment for our local heros to take the Beach Bandit that far!
In late 1980, Pat made a difficult decision to build a house for his family. He had to pull out of the deal right when a sponsorship was on the horizon and a new car was available. Nick understood Pat's decision and he supported him all the way with it. What they ended up with was an awesome set of memories and good times that they had running a Funny Car on a local budget and like they all told me, the very best part of the experience was meeting great people and making new friends in our sport.
Billy, Nick and Pat get together every Monday morning in Galveston and have breakfast together. They're all still the best of friends, and they still enjoy reminiscing about their projects from years gone by and keep up with the current state of drag racing and hot rodding. I want to thank them all for their great input for this feature, and a special thanks to Phyllis Ludgate Doherty for her giving me information I would not have other wise been able to know about.
Billy, Pat and Nick, we wish you good luck, safe racing and the best of times in the future!
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