RE­TURN OF THE UTICA FLASH

ROSS HOWARD PICKS UP THE TORCH

Drag Racer - - Over Center - Text and Photos by Martin Lib­hart

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

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