The ’60s was arguably one of the most dynamic decades in almost all forms of auto racing, with a “run what you brung!” style. The changes in drag racing were especially dynamic. Official sanctioning organizations had helped clean up drag racing’s bad-boy image to some degree, with established classes and a few safety regulations.
Part of the appeal of the new drag racing was that any licensed driver could run his or her car in classes based on horsepower-to-advertised-shipping-weight ratios and engine modifications. Spectators could relate to the cars they saw racing and this made Stock and Super Stock Eliminator classes very popular.
Arnie Beswick was a farm boy from Morrison, Illinois, with a knack for making changes to his machines. In the mid-’50s, he drag-raced stocker Olds and Dodge cars. But it was the ’58 Chieftain that turned the young man into a lifetime Pontiac fanatic. From 1958 to 1965, Beswick had a series of fiercely competitive Pontiac Stockers and Super Stockers. He campaigned hot Chieftains; a ’60 and ’61 four-speed Ventura; a ’62 Super Duty 421 Pontiac; and a ’63 Swiss Cheese Super Duty 421 Catalina, Tempest coupe, and Tempest station wagon with aluminum front ends.
When the GTO was introduced for ’64, he got the only one with the lightweight aluminum front and no sound-deadening material. This was the beginning of the brief Factory Experimental or FX era. Ford had its 427 Thunderbolts, and Chrysler had its 426 Rams and then Hemi cars. Things were beginning to get out of hand! This was especially true when Chrysler snuck out its acid-dipped, altered-wheelbase cars for ’65.
Since horsepower was outpacing the technology of racing slicks, traction was a serious issue. Plymouth and Dodge were the first to introduce the altered-wheelbase concept. A small batch of lightweight ’64 Dodges and Plymouths were built with their front wheels moved forward 10 inches and the rear wheels moved forward 15 inches. The result was vastly improved weight-transfer upon acceleration and traction. But the cars looked funny, and after a few months, the Factory Experimental class was created. Quickly the cars became known as “funny cars.”
To stay competitive, Beswick put a supercharger on his ’64 GTO and started using hi-test gasoline. Later, as the competition came up with new ways to make more power, Arnie started using alcohol with small amounts of nitro fuel. The crowds loved the new Funny Car class, but with strong presence from Ford and Chrysler-backed factory cars, track operators were hungry for competitive GM cars. Beswick took his ’63 Tempest and moved the front and rear wheels forward 12 inches, added a supercharger and nitro to a 421, and gave the car a wild-looking tiger-stripe paint job. His hard-charging Pontiacs appealed to the GM fans, plus he had that independent status that quickly made him a crowd favorite from coast to coast.
The true breakout year for what would soon be known as “funny cars” was 1966. Dyno Don Nicholson was the first racer to employ a one-piece, flip-top fiberglass body on a custom-made tube chassis. Basic engine and rear differential aside, there were no production-car parts on these new funny cars.
Beswick’s car was somewhat of a hybrid because he did not have a big sponsor and was financed with his match-racing winnings and appearance money. He acquired a pre-production ’66 GTO so that Pelligrini’s Fiberglass Limited could pull molds. Beswick wanted the body to be as stock-appearing as possible, with the exception of moving the front wheels forward 10 inches, and lengthening the hood and fenders—the front end flipped forward, like the Gassers of the day.
Beswick hired Logghe Brothers in Detroit to add a tube front axle to a stock ’64 GTO frame, mount the rear, set up the steering, and mount the new fiberglass body. He wanted the engine pushed back as far as possible for maximum traction. Since the blower and injector weren’t poking through the hood and windshield, the car looked amazingly stock, and with the Puhl’s House of Customs’ paint and hand-lettering by Dick Skully, the car was an instant hit.
Beswick’s engine had a surprising amount of stock Pontiac 421 Super Duty hardware. This is the same engine he used in his ’63 Swiss Cheese Catalina. The “980” heads are stock, and the crankshaft and rods are also ’63 Super Duty vintage. The supercharger was a GMC 6-71 unit with an Enderle bug-catcher-type injector, and the engine was water-cooled. The transmission was a modified Turbo 400 unit with a reworked stall converter, connected to a shortened stock GTO driveshaft and a Pontiac Big-Car differential with 4.30:1 Posi gears and stock Super Duty axles. The rear 15x10-inch Cragar S/S mags were shod with Goodyear Bluestreak 30x10.5x15 slicks. Fuel for the racer was methanol with 10-to-15-percent nitro, as that was about all the stock head gaskets and bolts could handle.
Beswick campaigned the GTO through ’66, ’67, and into ’68. Its first full-out pass was an 8.73 at 173 mph. With its wild paint job and tiger graphic, the GTO was nicknamed by a track announcer as the “Star of the Circuit.” Beswick was always competitive in the match-race and funny-car show circuit. The fans just loved his stock-looking GTO with the tiger on the door.
Unlike most old racecars from the ’60s, Beswick’s car has a happy ending. His GTO was initially sold to an Indiana racer in 1969. Then in the ’80s, Beswick bought it back and held on to it until 1991, when he sold it to Russ Ottens, his farmer/neighbor/friend. Ottens repainted it and made minor repairs; then in 2003, Ottens sold it to Beswick’s crew chief John Holmes.
Today, Beswick’s ’66 GTO is essentially as it was when it toured the circuit as “Star of the Circuit” in the ’60s. Upgrades include mandatory safety hardware, a modern Strange Engineering four-wheel disc-brake system, and rear axles in a new 9-inch Ford differential, some minor freshening of the interior’s tinwork, non-ported aluminum heads, and a few other miscellaneous engine internals. Drag racing has come a very long way since 1966. Beswick’s ’66 GTO is still a crowd favorite and proves that fans will always relate to race cars that look like the cars they love to drive on the street.