Heads-up racing outside of the professional ranks was something that many considered a dream and very impractical in the 1970s. In the days when class racing gave drag racing a black eye in a monetary sense and the inexpensive concept of bracket racing was taking root, many longed for racing where an average “Joe” could run heads-up with no ramifications if he was quicker than his index.
As all good things begin, a rough draft on paper led to what could be considered to be the wildest phenomenon to hit sportsman drag racing almost three decades ago. The rave as many knew it back then was called Super Modified.
Super Modified began as a modest proposal in the July 1974 issue of Car Craft magazine. The basic idea of the staff was to create a sportsman class that enabled sportsman drag racers to compete on a heads-up basis without having to incur the unrealistic financial obligations that a class like Pro Stock would demand. Their initial idea was to attract body styles such as 1967 and later cars of the muscle era and some compacts. The vision included Camaros, Chevy II’s, Dusters, Barracudas, Mavericks, Firebirds, and Hornets, just to name a few. The pounds-per-cubic inch ratio was 10 pounds per and the small block engines used had to match a combination that came with the car.
|F.J. Smith, long known for his prowess in Super Stock, was Canada’s most successful Super Modified racer.
Car Craft opened the options to include a fiberglass hood, with an all-steel body. The engines would use a single four-barrel carb, flat tappet cam and stock cylinder head ports. The suspension had to also be acceptable in Super Stock and the tires could be as large as 12”. Their goal was to tap into the large contingent of C through G Modified Production cars in attendance at national events. As the writer put it, “A small block in a 3000-pound car is a natural combination.”
The NHRA took notice of this interest, and no doubt the influx of calls to the sanctioning body aided the cause. In the meantime, the IHRA likewise took notice in the magazines and began to develop their own version of the class as well.
The final rules on the NHRA side mandated a 10.5” tire, ten-point cage, production heads (allowed to port one-inch down), it had to be a production car (1967 or later) of at least 500 units, wheelbase was limited to 103”, single-four barrel, transmission had to match the manufacturer, spoilers had to be production, stock suspension, no lightening of chassis, 50/50 weight distribution and the body could have no external modifications. Those were just a few of the guidelines. In 1975, in NHRA competition, there was only one class with a 9.5 pounds per rule. One year later, it was opened up three classes with 8.5, 9.5, 10.5 weight breaks and labeled A through C.
|Car Craft magazine drafted the initial concept for Super Modified. Staffer Rick Voeglin built this competitive entry for less than a $5,000 investment.
When one recalls the old Super Modified class, they can’t help but draw the comparisons between it and the new Top Stock division. Arlen Fadely, one of the key players in the Super Modified movement, remembers those days fondly as he developed a reputation of being a hard runner. While Fadely, who did battle in a potent small-block Maverick, loved everything about Super Modified and sees merit in Top Stock, he envisions the new generation sportsman heads-up class headed the same way his beloved class did.
“Top Stock is a pretty neat deal, but yet it is screwed up some,” Fadely explained. “To me it’s kind of hard to figure out once you add the crate motors into the deal. The way I see it, this class was set up for Stocks. Our deal was set up for Modified and it was pretty easy to get a grasp of.”
F.J. Smith, long known for his prowess in Super Stock, was Canada’s
most successful Super Modified racer. He was to Chevrolets what
Fadely was to Fords on the East Coast.
“I think Top Stock can learn a lot from the old Super Modified class and it will do well as long as they don’t play too many games with it,” Smith said. “I think they need to keep a lid on things like they did with us. They don’t need to run fast to put on a good show. I think the name of the game is to keep it competitive.”
“The IHRA just cancelled
the class. That certainly wasn’t my fault. I raced by
the rules and the rulebook allowed us to run a bigger tire
and that was about it. We just had the right combination and
I think in about a year or so, everyone would have caught
up with us. But, we worked hard and there was a many of nights
that I spent on my back on the parking lot of my motel working
on that car.” – Rickie Smith
As Smith sees it, Super Modified invokes memories after all of these years. Modified eliminator gave it the stage to perform.
“I think Modified was one of those classes that made the racers really pay attention to one another,” recalled Smith. “However, I think Super Modified only intensified that. When you were on your game people would tell you so. That was what made it special.”
Some think more could have been done to grow the concept. Did the NHRA do as much to promote Super Modified as it could have?
“There was a lot of wishful thinking during that time that
it would become a junior Pro Stock class,” recalled Fadely.
“Those kind of deals are never destined to work. It didn’t
work in the IHRA and it certainly didn’t work in the AHRA
with the GT classes. When you have that style of racing, it is always
exciting to watch. But, as the season wears on and guys become less
and less competitive, the participation begins to fall off. There’s
always a big difference between the haves and have nots.”
Fadely recalled in the early days of the IHRA and AHRA versions that car counts were in the 30-entry range, but by season’s end, participation had significantly fallen off.
|Arlen Fadely’s Maverick began life as a “Body in White” from the Ford dealership and was assembled by Don Hardy Race Cars. He was the Ford front-runner in the early and formative years of Super Modified.
“I think we would have all wanted to go heads up and have our own class,” Smith agreed. “None of the sanctioning bodies ever really want to allow technology to take its course. They needed to look at the numbers and stay on top of that.”
Fadely cited his participation in the AHRA GT classes as the reason he never wanted the NHRA version to be a stand-alone class.
Fadely had some disagreements with the NHRA in 1976 and decided to give the IHRA’s version a try. The IHRA’s version of the Super Modified class had more liberal rules, such as larger tires and a 5-speed instead of the production 4-speed. The manifolds could even be hand-fabricated.
The IHRA Super Modified class was a monster of its own.
That’s where an obscure class racer named Rickie Smith stepped in and created a name. He and car owner Keith Fowler had a successful season in 1976 and one year later won nearly three-quarters of the events contested. The competition was tough, as names such as John Bray and Don Bowles regularly competed, but Smith’s combination of Gapp and Roush horsepower and chassis proved to be too much. The IHRA dropped the class after that year. As a point of interest, Bowles also ran Roush horsepower.
Smith was given the reputation of being the driver that won too much and led to the demise of the class. He didn’t see it that way, and merely pointed out that he worked hard enough to earn the title.
“The IHRA just cancelled the class,” Smith recalled. “That certainly wasn’t my fault. I raced by the rules and the rulebook allowed us to run a bigger tire and that was about it. We just had the right combination and I think in about a year or so, everyone would have caught up with us. But, we worked hard – real hard. There were many nights that I laid on my back in the parking lot of my motel working on that car.
He continued, “Too many guys wanted to go out after the races and not work on their cars, and then when it came time to race they wanted to whine because we had an advantage. I was fresh out of high school and I was an ex-athlete and I was very determined and had a lot of willpower. I didn’t have the money, but luckily I had Keith Fowler. That car was hard on bearings and I had to pull the pan at the end of the night every night.”
Smith was quick to point out that Jack Roush taught him a lot when it came to prepping the motors. The hard work didn’t change the thinking of many that felt that IHRA needed to step in and regulate.
|Publications such as Super Stock magazine stepped forward to promote the concept.
“The IHRA had some staunch supporters and when Rickie started dominating so much, they called it quits,” added Fadely. “Why did that happen? When the sanctioning bodies allow one racer to win as much as they did, it literally prices everyone out of the class. I’d have to say that Keith Fowler spent his money wisely.”
Fadely says that it wasn’t so much Rickie as it was Roush that proved to be the nail in the coffin. Smith also contends that Roush was given a lot of credit for his motors, but it was actually Gene Fulton who did them in his championship season.
The prestige on the NHRA side was in winning class and that would
net enough monetary profit to break even on the books. According
to Fadely, the indexes were not favorable to the combination, so
it made winning the overall Modified eliminator title a difficult
task. At Indy, in 1976, Fadely won class over 33 entries only to
be disqualified on a technicality. One year earlier there was 39.
He would eventually go on that year to become the first Super Modified
racer to ever win the overall Modified title.
Fadely points out that the Super Modified class was one of those
concepts that looked good on paper, but didn’t pan out to
be too realistic. He credits Car Craft as the one that started the
ball to rolling, but Super Stock and Drag Illustrated’s involvement
only aided in the growth.
“Car Craft was pretty instrumental in making this whole thing happen,” Fadely said. “They believed that the NHRA would make it a Junior Pro Stock class. When Econo dragster came along, another one of their visions, it was believed to be a junior heads up class as well. The concept was well received and the Super Modified class was a full-bodied spin-off.”
Car Craft put their money where their mouth was as staffer Rick Voeglin also participated in the concept. He points out that racer input and the inclusion at several NHRA and IHRA events is what pushed the concept to fruition.
|Pro Stock legend Rickie Smith took three-quarters of the event wins in the IHRA’s stand-alone version of Super Modified. The class was eventually cancelled, but Smith points out that he was more determined than anyone else and that was why he won so much.
“We had just completed the Econo Dragster crusade and we wanted to do a doorslammer oriented version,” recalled Voeglin. “Our initial version was to be called Pro Modified. It was intended to be a heads-up eliminator for sportsman racing on an affordable level.”
Voeglin never got to run the IHRA side because of his geographic location in
California and regrets never getting to do so. His fondest memory
was in seeing the class get it chance in the NHRA and Ray Allen
won the first class eliminations ever held.
As there has always been in drag racing, there was also an East
and West Coast rivalry. Fadely and Smith recall racers like Rick
Houser (Chevrolet) and Jim Stevens (Ford) that they used to race
on a semi-regular basis. As Fadely recalled, “When they would
come out from California, we would kick their asses.”
Fadely continued, “They would run out there and their times would be two-tenths quicker and they would fall off of the pace once they came out here.”
Smith added with a chuckle, “The standing joke was that the horses got out of there coming across the Rocky Mountains.”
The Maverick that Fadely, Leroy Hinzman and Ed Bennett developed was a natural
for the trio. His position at Ford Engineering lent a great deal
of knowledge towards the project and enabled him to build the car
along the same lines as the legendary Mopar Missile Pro Stocker.
Fadely gained a lot of publicity because his entry was a project
car for Super Stock and Drag Illustrated magazine.
Fadely approached the class with nothing less than a full-fledged effort.
“I watched as most of the Trans-Am Series cars started out as body in white versions,” recalled Fadely. “Ford was pretty screwed up at that time and you could actually buy a body in white through the dealerships. I ordered one from Walt Hickey Ford in Southgate, Michigan and paid $450 for it.”
|The truth be known, Super Modified was actually originally referred to as Pro Modified, as evidenced by this old Drag Review clipping circa 1974.
The package came with doors, deck lid and that was it. He promptly had the car shipped to Don Hardy, who prepared the car according to the rulebook. The car was trick in every aspect. Sources report that Wayne Gapp prepared Rickie Smith’s championship-winning Maverick.
Others used their own intricate approaches. For instance, Smith’s car was acid-dipped as well and several others had their own special tricks. In a contrast of sorts, Voeglin estimated that he had no more than $5000 in his entry.
The performances of the Super Modifieds helped them to establish their value. During this era, the Super Modifieds ran as low as a 10.18. Fadely held the record for much of the year. The close competition was the selling point for racers like Smith.
“I think because the cars were so competitive, it invokes a lot of memories,” added Smith. “It’s amazing how we can’t remember what we did two weeks ago, but we can remember this stuff. It was a very good class and brings back good memories.”
Fadely eventually sold his car to Mike Edwards, who went on to win the championship in 1981. As Fadely recalled, the Super Modified rule of 10.5-inch tires worked to Edwards’ favor because he would go to the high-altitude tracks and the atmospheric shortcomings were minimal.
In looking back through the years, Fadely will admit that running Super Modified was a lot of fun and provided a formidable challenge. This era was one that he and others will never forget.
It affected others that didn’t race as well. Veteran photojournalist Dave Bishop, who worked largely on the IHRA side, recalled watching Super Modified in its heyday. His comments summed up what Super Modified stood for.
“It was a neat class to watch and it was something that we all could
relate to because we knew the people running it were working class
guys,” Bishop recollected. “It was a good thing while
it lasted, I just think it ran its course. It was a perfect class
for that era.”