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Gene Mooneyham, 75; Pioneer in Drag Racing as Driver, Designer, Builder and Businessman

January 24, 2006|Martin Henderson | Times Staff Writer

Gene Mooneyham, a pioneer in drag racing as a racer, designer, builder, chief mechanic and business owner, has died. He was 75.

Mooneyham, who played an instrumental role in the careers of many big-name racers, including "Big Daddy" Don Garlits and John Force, died of pneumonia Jan. 17 at Placentia-Linda Hospital in Placentia, said his son, Fred.

Mooneyham got his start racing hot rods on dry lake beds when enthusiasts converged on dusty drag strips in the sport's formative years.

Although he owned teams that raced professionally, his work with superchargers made him one of the sport's most influential people.

In 1996, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Hot Rod Assn., the sanctioning body that oversees most drag racing in America.

"His real contribution to the sport came in the area of superchargers," Garlits said. "Some of my best runs were with his Mooneyham blowers. He was very innovative.

"The Mooneyham, Jackson and Faust car was a streamlined dragster where the driver sat behind the rear-end, which was really forward thinking in the 1960s. The whole car was covered, even the cockpit."

It, along with Mooneyham's trademark fuel-altered car, the 1934 Mooneyham and Sharp Ford coupe, rests in Garlits' Museum of Drag Racing in Lakeland, Fla.

The coupe, with the number 554 on its door, was even replicated as a collector's edition model by Mattel.

The trademark race car had been lettered for a race on the Bonneville Salt Flats, but the number was mistakenly applied with marine paint.

Afterward, the imprint showed through succeeding liveries. Finally, Mooneyham gave in and repainted the number over the imprint, and it became the car's trademark, as well as his own.

Although he retired from racing in the 1950s after a crash in San Diego, Mooneyham's car continued to win with driver Larry Faust.

It won at Bakersfield in 1960, and held the top spot in Junior Eliminator through much of the mid-1960s.

Mooneyham and Faust later joined with Wayne Ferguson and Jerry Jackson to become one of the best fuel dragster teams on the West Coast, and his top-fuel dragster with Robert Anderson won the inaugural Gatornationals in Jacksonville, Fla., in 1970.

While running his own team, he also was crew chief for Jack Chrisman's supercharged Comets in 1964-65, which preceded the current funny car class.

The last car he owned, the California Cajun, which was driven by his son Fred, won in top-fuel at the Orange County Race of Champions in 1971.

He built and sold some of the first aluminum heads for the Chrysler Hemi in the early 1960s, and created Mooneyham Blowers in Downey in 1974. He has supplied his products to some of the preeminent names in drag racing.

"When he went into the blower business, he did it out of a passion," Force said.

"There were a lot of guys like myself who struggled in the early days, and Gene floated me because I never had any money," Force said. "We make our own blowers now, but in the first 15 years of my career, Mooneyham blowers are all that I ran."

Born in Cameron, Okla., Mooneyham came to California with his family when he was 12.

He got his first car at 15 and became interested in racing while living in Wilmington, which was a fertile ground for the burgeoning racing scene in Southern California.

He was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 2001, and also is in the Southern California Timing Assn. Hall of Fame.

In addition to his son, Fred, he is survived by his wife of 54 years, Dorothy; son Gene Mooneyham Jr., of Lake Havasu, Ariz.; daughters Judy Morris of Phoenix, and Myra Samson of Danville, Calif.; 12 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

Funeral services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Rose Hills Mortuary in Whittier.

Instead of flowers, the family asked that donations be made in Gene Mooneyham's name to the Drag Racing Assn. of Women to benefit injured racers.

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