RETURN OF THE UTICA FLASH
ROSS HOWARD PICKS UP THE TORCH
Ross Howard Picks up the Torch
ROSS HOWARD AND I CONNECTED NEARLY THREE YEARS AGO VIA THE WORLD OF NOSTALGIA DRAG RACING. HE IS A GOOD FRIEND, AND I HAVE COME TO APPRECIATE HIM PERSONALLY DURING THIS TIME. IN ADDITION TO HIS LOVE OF DRAG RACING AND THE MANY THINGS STILL ON HIS BUCKET LIST, FOR THE PAST 12 YEARS HE HAS BEEN THE PRIMARY CAREGIVER FOR HIS ELDERLY MOTHER, WHO RECENTLY PASSED IN FEBRUARY OF 2016.
In the time I have known Howard, I have developed a fascination with his collection of racing artifacts, memorabilia and his collection of Mopar vehicles. Space limitations here prevent a complete listing of his Mopars, but the list does include several ’70 Plymouth Superbirds, ’69 Dodge Daytonas, New Yorkers, a ’70 ’Cuda and an old Imperial. He also owns several period-correct vehicles and a ’66 Dodge push-car and a ’70 Dodge push-truck, the latter two for duty at nostalgia events.
Howard not only has an extensive knowledge of drag racing from the past, he was also a participant at one time, having raced several cars, including a Hemi-powered Dodge Dart. Although his years of racing are in the past, his desire to own a nitro car has persisted. That desire was ultimately fulfilled in late 2014, when he was able to acquire Phil Castronovo’s Custom Body Enterprises AA/FC. The car met his personal criteria: It had to be a car of prominence in drag racing history, and it had to be a Chrysler product.
Brothers Fred and Phil Castronovo owned and operated Custom Body Enterprises in Utica,
New York. They had a passion for drag racing, and their involvement was significant in the ’70s at the height of the Funny Car revolution. They won the NHRA World Finals at the end of 1971, and also took the NHRA World Championship.
Variations of the Custom Body Enterprises AA/FC were campaigned for a number of years, with the car Howard has now acquired being raced in 1973. Don Kirby’s shop handled much of the body and fabrication work in 1972. The legendary Phil Roberts, an expert in every facet of Funny Car preparation, was the Castronovos’ chief mechanic. Tom Prock joined the Castronovo brothers in 1972, where he remained until 1976. Prock, a notable presence in drag racing history both then and now, took over the driving duties for Phil Castronovo after Phil stepped out of the seat following a horrific topend explosion at Indy. Track photographers captured that incident on film, and the coverage was featured in “LIFE” magazine soon thereafter. Following significant family pressure after the incident, Phil relinquished the driving duties to Prock. In addition to numerous Best Appearing Car awards, the car was the 1973
//The crowd loved it, as did the entire Prock family. Howard’s custom-body Funny Car is a stunning example of drag racing in the ’70s.
NHRA Division 1 champion, 1973 Super Stock Nationals winner at York U.S. 30 Dragway in Pennsylvania, 1973 AHRA Grand American winner and the 1973 Funny Car Nationals winner. The winner’s trophy at the Superstock Nationals was a special championship for the team, as they ran in a 64-car field. The car also made appearances at more than 70 match races across the country during the year it was campaigned.
Prock began his racing career in the ’60s and has continued his involvement in the sport since that time. His early days of racing were at places like Detroit Dragway, where he raced a ’39 Pontiac coupe in C/Gas. He then went on to campaign a ’41 Willys A/Gasser from 1964 to 1967. It was also during this time that Prock went to work for Gene and Ron Logghe at Logghe Stamping Company. Logghe built many successful cars in the sport and was also credited with fabrication of the early flip-top Funny Cars. In 1970, Prock actually worked on the Logghe factory Funny Car, the Warhorse Mustang, driven by Jay Howell. Prock soon joined Pete Seaton and Al Bergler with the Seaton
Shaker Vega Funny Car, but Seaton exited the picture after just one race, and the car was renamed the Motown Shaker. Their efforts lasted only a year, but the car ran well with a best of 6.60 at 210 mph. He also campaigned the Detroit Tiger F/C with Pancho Rendon.
After his retirement from driving, Prock first worked as Tom “The Mongoo$e” McEwen’s crew chief for six years. Included in their success was winning the Big Bud Shootout bonus race at the U.S. Nationals in 1984. Prock retired from racing in 1986, and went to work for Joe Pisano at Venolia Pistons, where he continues to manage operations. Further keeping him connected with the sport are Prock’s two sons: Funny Car World Champion Crew Chief Jimmy Prock, who recently returned to John
Force Racing (JFR), and Jimmy’s brother, Jeffery, owner of Prock Performance, which specializes in nitrous oxide systems for all levels of competition, including exotic, high-horsepower applications. Prock’s grandson, Austin, is a
new young gun in sprint car and midget racing. A glimpse into the future: there’s a very good chance that Austin will be following in his grandfather’s footsteps, driving a Funny Car for JFR, the timeframe has yet to be determined.
Lee Fabry acquired the ’73 Custom Body car several years ago after he responded to an advertisement on the web. The restoration began quickly, with attention to detail and accuracy being Fabry’s top priority. The exterior of the car is a true work of art and was completely redone by Steve Shuck in 2005. Shuck, a wellknown drag racing and contemporary abstract artist, is known for his quality of work, and the Custom Body Enterprises car is certainly no exception. Shuck used today’s technology to accurately replicate the design and colors of the original body, mirroring the work that was done in Don Kirby’s shop in 1972. Working from original photographs, some of which he had personally taken, Shuck was able to precisely locate graphic elements and color to create the perfect replica of the original Funny Car.
Once Fabry’s restoration was complete, the Custom Body Enterprises car found a home at the NHRA Museum in Pomona, California. Howard subsequently purchased the car from Fabry in late 2014. Today the car rides on a replica of the original Woody Gilmore chassis, courtesy of Bob Rosetty of Funny Farm Fabrication. The only deviation from the original design is the six-point roll cage and a fabricated rearend housing in lieu of the original Dana 60 configuration. The car first carried fire bottles and firewall windows in 1973, and it still sports the original canard wings, which were no longer used after the 1973 season. The engine is an aluminum Keith Black 484-ci Hemi, running with only minor deviations in parts from those used in the original car.
Since its acquisition, Howard labored to prepare the car for numerous appearances and cacklefests at major nostalgia events. A friend who needs no introduction—former Top Fuel and Funny Car driver Larry Brown—has been working to upgrade the necessary motor components to endure those nitro cackles and header flames. And none other than Prock, through Venolia, has worked directly with Howard to supply the pistons and other components for the upgrade. Other items from the motor and drivetrain have been serviced, including the Cirello magneto, which Tom Cirello has confirmed once belonged to “Jungle Jim” Liberman.
As a part of NHRA’s recognition of the 50th Year of the Funny Car, Howard was invited to display and cackle the car at several national events, including the National Hot Rod Reunion (Bowling Green, Kentucky), Bandimere Speedway (Denver), the U.S. Nationals at Indy and the California Hot Rod Reunion (Bakersfield, California).
The trip to Indy for the 2016 U.S. Nationals was an incredible experience for not only Howard, but many members of the Prock family as well. The car last appeared at Indy 43 years ago, with
Tom Prock in the seat. The plan was for Prock to once again be with the car at Indy, but a health issue prevented him from making the long trip from California. However, the stars were still aligned for this epic visit, with Prock’s son, Jimmy, spinning the starter, and Jimmy’s son, Austin, in the seat to whack the throttle and burn some 95% nitro. The crowd loved it, as did the entire Prock family.
Howard’s custom-body Funny Car is a stunning example of drag racing in the ’70s. With the help of Larry Brown, Howard continues to make minor upgrades to tweak the performance of the car, and already has plans to appear at several notable events in 2017.
the stars were still aligned for this epic visit, with Prock’s son, Jimmy, spinning the starter, and Jimmy’s son, Austin, in the seat to whack the throttle and burn some 95% nitro. The crowd loved it, as did the entire Prock family.//
Martin Libhart is associate publisher of Nostalgia Drag World and a current nostalgia racing photographer across the country. DRAG RACER is pleased to partner with Nostalgia Drag World on this story.
/ The U.S. Nationals 2016 featured NHRA’s 50 Years of Funny Cars celebration. Arguably the highlight was the Custom Body Challenger. Preparing to cackle (L to R): Ross Howard, Austin Prock (Tom Prock’s grandson) at the controls and Tom Prock’s son, World Champ Crew Chief Jimmy Prock.
/ Due to their fragile nature and explosive environment, very few ’70s era floppers get a second chance. Thanks to Fabry and Howard, the Custom Body Challenger lives on.
/ The Castronovo brothers fielded several floppers through the years. With Tom Prock at the helm, 1973 was a very successful year for the Utica boys. Photo by Steve Reyes
/ The major players: Phil Roberts crew (and chief, left) and Tom Prock driver (right)—simpler times. Photo by Steve Reyes