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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

The Jungle Jim Show: Tribute or Rip-off?

An Interview with Ernie Walker

By Bill Pratt

The Ernie Walker Jungle Jim show includes two funny cars and a transporter/museum. Photo by Brian Wood
The Ernie Walker Jungle Jim show includes two funny cars and a transporter/museum.
Photo by Brian Wood

Funny Car purists and the Liberman estate are howling about Ernie and Sandra Walker's Jungle Jim Show. Ernie and Sandra say they are not out to make money on a dead man's name; they are just trying to show folks a little bit of what it was like in the old days. Who's right? Is this really one of Jungle's old cars? Even if it is, should Ernie race it under the JJ moniker? I caught up with Ernie at Ware Shoals Dragway to get the story on why he painted his Vega funny car in the Jungle Jim colors.

Ernie says that Walt Weney himself certifies this car as the Swensen & Lani machine. Photo by Brian Wood
Ernie says that Walt Weney himself certifies this car as the Swensen & Lani machine.
Photo by Brian Wood

Draglist: Ernie, you have two of history's most famous funny cars here. As I'm sure you know, your running the Vega is very controversial with hard core funny car fans. Before we get into that, however, let's talk about the new car. How did you come to build or acquire the Swensen and Lani Mustang?

EW: The S&L car was originally thought to be one of Lew Arrington's Brutus machines. I called Scott Weney of S&W Race Cars, who did not remember the car. I sent him some photos and he consulted with his dad, Walt. After looking at the photos, Walt said it's not the Brutus, car, but it IS the Swensen and Lani car. I did not remember the team, but we built the car to match the Swensen & Lani machine based on photos we found. 

The Mustang features a 392 Hemi taken out of a 1958 Chrysler Imperial. It has a 392 crank, heads, and block, .030 over on methanol with an 8-71 blower on top. It uses a Crawford Injector with an Enderle hat, an Isky roller, and a Powerglide connected to a Dana 60 rear end. The car weights 1830 lbs. without driver. Driver Lonnie Partane has only made checkout passes so far. We were supposed to go to the Funny Car Reunion and have Jake Crimmins sit in the car but that didn't work out. Maybe next year.

Ernie Walker's Jungle Jim Vega raises the ire of JJ purists. Photo by Roger Richards
Ernie Walker's Jungle Jim Vega raises the ire of JJ purists. Photo by Roger Richards

Draglist: Ok, Ernie, now the big one. What's the story on the Jungle Jim Vega? This car clearly does not look like any of the Jungle Jim Vegas I remember. In fact, the body doesn't even fit the chassis. What's the story?

EW: When I first got this car, I had no idea whose it was. I wasn't looking to build it in any certain way. Then my friend Dangerous Don (crew chief for Shirl Greer in his World Championship year) told me that he thought it was an old Jungle car. Don told me that it was one of the first Jungle Jim Novas that went from the Chevy motor to the Hemi motor. 

According to Dangerous Don, one of the Jungle Jim team cars was booked into a race in southern Florida, but the Nova body had been destroyed in an accident. The team needed to mate the Vega body to the Nova chassis to make the match race date. Dangerous Don and another guy helped the team modify the cage to get the narrow Vega body mounted on the wide Nova chassis. The car made the match race date, was run a few more times, and then sold. 

The car went through several stints as a bracket car until I purchased it. Based on what Dangerous Don told me, we restored the car as a Jungle Jim car. [Dangerous Don confirmed this story online this past week.]

This shot shows the chassis of the Ernie Walker Vega. Photo by Brian Wood
This shot shows the chassis of the Ernie Walker Vega. Photo by Brian Wood

Draglist: Assuming this was a Jungle Jim car as you described, why are you out here racing it as Jungle Jim?

EW: I'm not trying to get rich off Jungle's name. In fact, we are up here this weekend just for expense money [We confirmed this with Classic Thunder promoters]. I just want to give fans at smaller tracks a taste of the old days. I've had the Jungle Jim car for nine years. It's an exhibition car that just gives fans a little taste of what it was like. I run on 25 percent nitro and usually run exhibition passes in the low eight second range at about 175 mph in the quarter. I am well aware of the controversy. I nearly sold the entire operation last year, but my guys talked me into bringing it out for one more year. If anyone involved with the Liberman estate asks me to take the name off the car, I will.*

Draglist: Thanks, Ernie.

* Note: This may happen. Former Jungle Jim crony Berserko Bob Doerrer drove down from Charlotte to attend the inaugural Southern Classic Thunder race. One of his main reasons was to get a closer look at Ernie Walker's operation. After interviewing Ernie about the car and observing the show, Berserko announced online the following day that the Ernie Walker car was a joke and a fraud and that he would join Jim Liberman's widow, Bobbie, in legal action to get Walker to remove the Jungle Jim name and likeness from his car. Stay tuned.

Bill Pratt

 

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