In the annuals of Ford Drag racing history, names like Bob Glidden, “Dyno” Don Nicholson, and Gapp and Roush are front and center. These icons raced and won driving Blue Oval-powered machines and also held off the onslaught of the factory-backed Mopar and Chevy racers that had “back-door” parts deals and factory technical support. But there’s another racer who stayed loyal throughout his racing career and never jumped brands for a more lucrative deal, that’s Al Joniec.
Born in 1939, Al grew up in Philadelphia and as a youngster he gained the passion for working on cars and making them faster. He begged his grandmother for $20 to purchase his buddies 1940 Ford that had a 239 cubic-inch flathead V8 under the hood. Despite having a broken axle, young Al ventured to a junkyard in the dead of winter in search of replacement parts. Soon, the Ford was running and it became a major milestone and turning point in Al’s life.
He realized owning and modifying a car cost money, so he got a part-time job at a service station pumping gas and doing minor repair work. It expanded AL’s knowledge of the inner workings of automobiles, while reinforcing his work ethic. Al also began drag racing at an area in Philly known as “the meadows,” a sort of de facto drag strip for the local hot rodders.
The meadows consisted of a paved road between the rail yards and open fields. Al wanted to make his Ford faster, so he bolted on performance parts from a modified engine he had received from his buddy. Those go-fast goodies included an Isky cam, Edelbrock intake with twin Stromberg carbs and Offy cylinder heads.
“Putting in the cam and using adjustable lifters was another great experience for me as well as learning about the offset distributor drive,” noted Al. “I had already put in a 4.11 rear so I was ready to rock and roll. I could beat the stock ’55 and ’56 Chevys, but not by much. However when the 1957 models came out I was toast.” It’s no wonder when Stock Eliminator was called to the staging lanes, there was a mass convoy of tri-five Chevys with numerous engine and transmission combinations ready to put the hurt on anything that ran next to them.
So it’s no surprise that Al went all in when he accepted a job at Frank Bash’s Speed shop in Germantown, Pennsylvania. “It was the only place I ever heard about doing high performance work on cars. Bash was looking for a helper and asked me if I wanted a job there, I was thrilled. Here I was 16 years old going to go to work at a fantasy place for me at the time.” Being a diehard Ford guy and seeing how the Chevys were running roughshod at drag strips across the country did not dissuade Al from working harder on his Ford. Nevertheless, he knew its Flathead engine’s useful lifespan was limited and the technology dated.
It was a chance meeting with a good friend named Louie when Al laid eyes on a brand-new 1958 Ford Fairlane convertible powered by a 300 horsepower 352 cubic-inch FE powerplant. Louie didn’t like the way his Fairlane was running, so he asked if Al could take a look under the hood. The culprit was a worn cam lobe, so Al jumped in with simple tools began changing out the bad pieces.
By going with a Ford solid lifter bumpstick and lifters and new pushrods and adjustable rocker arms, the car turned into a new animal. “After that, I put in a 4.11 rear and we were ready to rock and roll as we kicked ass and took names with the car everywhere we went,” laughed Al.
“We went on to beat the hell out of the stock Chevys in Philadelphia and New Jersey, both on and off the strip. All through 1958 I never remember losing to one of those Chevys.” It was at this moment Al started running Stock Eliminator and he began travelling to races across the country. “I was never outside of the Pennsylvania and New Jersey area, there was no Interstate 95 back then, so it was truly an exciting adventure,” reminisced Al. “It was the first week in January 1959 (the big Ford convertible was still new to me) and we were going to the new PDA (Professional Drag Racer Association) winter race in the Daytona Beach at Spruce Creek. NHRA had not created the Winternationals race yet. I got an extra 2.91 rear and put it in the car and put the 4.11 in the trunk for the race so it could easy cruise on down to Florida.” The track was your typical post WWII airstrip with a flagman start, worn pavement devoid of any traction, and virtually no amenities. Al and his friend Louie remained steadfast and defeated 50 cars for the A/S class trophy. As a result, Al has been hooked on Fords ever since.
As the 1950s gave way to the early 1960s, the drag racing scene was rapidly changing. Cars were getting faster, fans came out in droves to the strips and Detroit was taking notice.
Being the successful diehard Ford racer he was, Al was seeking out a factory deal. “I was looking forward to the new Thunderbolt’s that Ford was previewing for the Super Stock wars for 1964. I was really anticipating these things as we were finally getting a smaller size car with a big 427 engine. It was also supposed to be almost ready to race as the suspension was complete and came with lightweight tube headers. Finally, we were allowed to use small seven-inch slicks,” he said.
Despite having good success with the new Thunderbolt against the Ford factory backed racers, the only help Al received was from a local dealer, Swenson Ford. Al was still hoping for something more and wanted a factory deal badly. “I was somewhat depressed when no one reached out to me. I never lost to another Ford and I had the fastest Ford T-bolt at the 1964 NHRA Indy Nationals, but I didn’t get a call from Ford to join the team,” said a frustrated Al.
“However right after Indy, I got a call from Bill Jenkins. He said that he got a deal with Chrysler and asked me to drive one of the cars since he had split with Dave Strickler and he was no longer a part of the ‘Dodge Boys.’ I said yes as I was thrilled to finally have direct factory deal and especially with Jenkins, even though I would have preferred a Ford as many of the top guys had changed to different OEMs. Bill called me shortly after that to tell me the car was arriving and to come on down and see it. The Plymouth HEMI Super Stocker was supposed to be a four-speed, but came through as an automatic. Bill said, “hell I can drive it and I really didn’t need you anymore.” I did help Bill prepare the HEMI Plymouth for the 1965 Winternationals. I had never been to California and was looking forward to going anyway. Because the car was so light, we had to add weight, especially in the rear. So, one of my high-tech jobs was to take out the taillight housings. I then put a pipe around the light socket (to prevent the lead from flowing in the light socket) and we poured molten lead into the housing until it was halfway full. I also put long screws in the light housing for the lead to grab on to it and painted the lead area with silver paint. The light worked and you would never know from looking at them from the outside there was at least 20 plus pounds of lead in each of them. At any rate, when the time came to going, Jenkins told me he didn’t have the space and resources and said I couldn’t come with him. I was now totally bummed as it was like an emotional Yo-Yo for me.”
Soon, however, things changed. The somewhat-new A/FX class was getting more attention due to the use of nitro and tire-shedding wheelstanding antics. It was the precursor to the Funny Car class, and it was a hit among the fans.
“After the 1964 season, I sold the Thunderbolt to get ready for the next year but this time I wasn’t sure of what I would be racing in 1965. It was now getting near Christmas time, and I was moping around trying to make senses of it all when I got a call from Ford to go pick up my new A/FX Mustang. I was now going to be one of the Ford Team cars drivers in 1965,” gleaned Al. It was the deal Al was looking from Ford and he compares it to being discovered by the NFL.
Right after the New Year (1965), Al drove to Holman & Moody to pick up his new A/FX Mustang. It was to have Ford’s ground-pounding 427 SOHC Cammer between the fenders, but due to a shortage of engines, it had a regular FE 427. The guys at the shop were apologetic, but Al didn’t care, he was like a kid in a candy store and his racing career was beginning to really take off.
Now that he had the car, it was time to go to work. The Mustang got painted Mother of Pearl White, then he began to do engine and suspension mods. “It did get into the 10-second zone right away as the traction was much better with the 427 Wedge than the much heavier 427 Cammer. I started testing and winning races, but there were not a lot of A/FX cars around to race back in them days. Ultimately, there was little difference between the Wedge and the Cammer when it came to ET, but the Cammer engine was about four plus mile per hour faster due to the additional power,” noted Al.
Eventually a 427 SOHC Cammer would find its way into Al’s A/FX Mustang as another racer, Paul Norris, crashed his injected A/FX Steed, so Ford had Al pickup up the engine out of the totaled Mustang. Having some success in the 1965 season, major victories still eluded Al. By 1966, Al quit his fulltime job and picked up Rice & Holman Ford as a new sponsor and went racing fulltime.
Ford contacted Al and wanted him to support the NASCAR Drag Racing series and run those events. As a result, Al didn’t hit many NHRA traces that season, but it was something new and Al wanted to keep the factory happy. Al also did bodywork to his A/FX Mustang, applied black paint with red stripes, and named it the “BATCAR” (due to the popular, but cheesy, hit TV show of the mid-1960s).
Al traveled the country with the BATCAR and the new look was even more of hit among the spectators. “Since the Batmobile was done by the custom car king at the time, George Barris and I fell in love with the new paint scheme. I told Bob Cummings to strip the car and paint it black, as I would contact Ralph Hart about doing the Batman theme layout. Ralph was incredible as he so easily (free hand) laid out the Batman-style scallops on the car for Bob to paint in red. The finished car looked really great to me,” smiled Al. It was the height of booked-in match races, and it made a star out of Al, while being financially lucrative, too. By 1967, the BATCAR A/FX Mustang was involved in accident that wiped out most everything from the firewall forward. So the decision was made to turn it into an altered-wheelbase machine. Al also added a Ford C-6 automatic for reliability and consistency. The BATCAR, with its stroker Cammer engine and new trans ran 9.10 at 150 mph and set the drag racing world on its ear.
Super Stock to the Lanes
By 1968, Detroit was focusing its drag racing efforts on showroom production vehicles, not the nitro burning fiberglass Funny Cars of the previous years. While Chrysler introduced its “RO” and “WO” Street Hemi package cars in 1967, Ford took note as its restyled Mustang for ’67 would accept the FE Big Block.
But with the lackluster performance of the 390, and after prodding from Bob Tasca, Ford introduced a 428 Cobra Jet Mustang in 1968. The launch point would be the NHRA Winternationals, and the Ford marketing folks wanted to make darn sure their new engine package would dominate in the highly competitive and popular Stock and Super Stock classes.
A small batch of specially prepared 428 Cobra Jet Mustang Fastbacks were sent off to Holman-Moody West and Bill Stroppe’s shop. “During the winter of ’67 and ’68, I got a call from Chuck Foulger (Ford drag racing coordinator at the time) about racing the new Mustang that Ford was going to introduce at the NHRA 1968 Winternationals in February called the Cobra Jet. He said that Ford wanted to go back to ‘Race on Sunday, sell on Monday’ to sell cars off the showroom floor, not crazy funny cars. He invited me to be a part of the select group of the Ford team, if I wanted. Since I was not interested in Funny Cars per se, I thought this was great and I accepted the offer. As the time got closer, we talked back and forth regarding the logistics of how we were going to make it all happen,” said Al.
With the new Cobra Jet Mustang fitting in a variety of four-speed and automatic Stock and Super Stock classes, Al ran SS/E during the 1968 Winternationals. He tested the day before the event and netted solid low 11-second ETs, well under the class record. Unbeknownst to anyone else, Al had the class covered and would face fellow Cobra Jet racer Hubert Platt for the trophy run.
Hubert redlighted and Al was the SS/E class winner, thus guaranteeing him a spot during the Super Stock eliminations. “For Super Stock Eliminator, it was like racing the whole company called Mopar. Except for Hubert, it seemed like I had to race nothing but Mopars,” remarked Al. “Apparently the Mopar teams knew the Cobra Jets could easily run below the record and I assumed they had a strategy to force the CJ out by becoming martyrs and red lighting, thus forcing us to run below the record and therefore lose. There were still four Mopars left for me to run as one after the other continued to red light.” When the dust settled, Al was the Super Stock winner and the Cobra Jet Mustang claimed victory in its NHRA Debut.
That’s a moment Al will never forget. “The celebrations begun, and I was immediately stopped at the scales to make sure the car was at minimum weight and was chaperoned by a NHRA official as he rode back with me to the winner’s circle before we got into the real tech of taking the head off and have the whole car inspected,” explained Al.
When Pro Stock was added as an NHRA class in 1970, Al traded his winning Cobra Jet Mustang for a Cammer-powered Maverick. While Chrysler owned the class for the first two years, Al’s hard work and innovations made him a tough competitor to anyone who lined up next to him, but he knew it was not like Super Stock racing in which you raced off a record and handicap starts. “I was running just out of the 9-second range and winning a lot with the local competition, but I needed to step it up if I want to run with the big dogs and had to do something. The Chrysler Hemi engine was the one to beat as Sox and Martin won the first two Indy Nationals in Pro Stock, even Bill Jenkins couldn’t beat them during this time.”
Al walked away from drag racing in 1972, he was burnt out. But he remained in the automotive industry and spent time at United Technologies Corporation (UTC). UTC was a leading aerospace company that was getting into the automotive test equipment business in multiple markets for both engine diagnostic, quality control for the OEMs and for the pending state and nationwide aftermarket emission testing programs. Al was also a consultant with the unique diesel test equipment and worked to develop the first four gas exhaust analyzers for the automotive repair aftermarket.
Al still had his hand in many racing ventures, as it was and still is, his passion. He also got to see history repeat itself when Ford re-introduced the next generation Cobra Jet in 2008. As a tribute, Brent Hajek, who owned four of the new Cobra Jets, had them painted up in the original lettering of the four 1968 Mustang Cobra Jets that dominated at the ’68 NHRA Winternationals. Call it fate, irony, or just Blue Oval magic, John Calvert, driving a 2008 Cobra Jet lettered up just like Al Joniec’s ’68 Winternationals winning Cobra Jet, won the 2008 NHRA Winternationals nearly 40 years later to the day and Al was there to witness the race and see a repeat of his historic win. “Who would have guessed the results,” said an emotional Al. They say it’s rare lighting strikes twice, for Al Joniec, the forces of nature made an exception.