Author: Jodauga, John
Date published: March 4, 2011
Journal code: NDRG
requested by Jay Smith
There were many colorful personalities in drag racing when the sport was captivated by "match race madness," which actually started in the South and spread nationwide in the early 1960s. During that period, few drivers attracted more fans than Phil Bonner, of Atlanta. A former commercial aviation pilot, Bonner became one of Ford's more visible campaigners with strong driving skills, crowd-pleasing showmanship, and his trademark blond hair that matched the golden-traction rosin dust that personified the era.
The fact that Bonner spent his entire career racing with Dearborn products endeared him to the legions of Ford fans, and Bonner said his affinity for Fords was connected to his family roots. "I was a country boy, and my parents always had Fords," said Bonner. "So that's what I started driving and raced with as soon as I got my license. At times, we were the underdogs, but that just made us even more popular with the spectators."
Bonner first began racing in late 1953 at a local quarter-mile dragstrip with a dirt racing surface. "I had a new '54 Mercury with automatic transmission, it worked pretty good on the dirt," said Bonner.
Following a period of relative inactivity in the mid- to late 1950s, Bonner returned to action in a 352-cid-powered Ford Starliner in 1960, which was the first season in which Bonner and his fellow Super Stock racers began to earn appearance money.
"Yellow River Dragway, which was just outside of Atlanta, was the first dragstrip to book the top drivers, and other tracks quickly followed their example," said Bonner. "All of us began drag racing just for fun, but the appearance money gave us a chance to make a living out at it. It became profitable enough to attract successful racers, like 'Dyno Don' Nicholson, who moved all the way from Pasadena, Calif., to Atlanta, just so he could match race on a full-time basis."
As the involvement of the Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler teams increased, so did the size and power of the engines. In 1961, Bonner ran a 390-cid Starliner, followed by a 406-cid Galaxie with tri-power carburetors in 1962, and then a 427-cid Galaxie fastback in 1963. The fastback body was equipped with a wide variety of lightweight body components, such as fiberglass front fenders, hood, doors, and trunk lid, and the bumpers and mounting brackets were made from stamped aluminum. To reduce additional weight, the lighter frame from the six-cylinder-powered 300 series sedans was also utilized.
Bonner had run so well with these vehicles that he was among the elite group of Ford drivers, including Gas Ronda, Dick Brannan, Butch Leal, Bill Lawton, and Les Ritchey, to receive one of the factory hand-built Ford Thunderbolts, a midsized Ford Fairlane with a 427-cid engine, to compete at the seasonopening Winternationals in 1964.
Just prior to the Pomona event, Bonner won the featured Super Stock program at Lions Drag Strip with a low e.t. of the meet, 11.21. "We went real quick there because we were allowed to run wider tires, which our stick shift Thunderbolts really needed," said Bonner. "But when we ran the NHRA Winternationals, we had to switch to the smaller 7-inch tires, and we couldn't get off the line as quick as the Dodge and Plymouth entries, which were more consistent with their automatic transmissions."
Bonner was later able to close the performance gap with the Mopars when he built his own superlight 427-cid Ford Falcon, which featured a traction-boosting-shorter wheelbase. Bonner's Falcon not only started running in the 10-second zone in match race trim, but it was also one of the first Detroit doorslammers to start doing wheelstands, which increased his fan appeal even more.
In 1965, Bonner began the season with one of the Ford factory A/FX SOHC 427 Mustangs that dominated that year's Winternationals with high 10-second times by Bill Lawton. Chrysler's radical-altered-wheelbase Dodge and Plymouth entries, which inspired the birth of the Funny Car movement, did not participate in the race because both had been outlawed from NHRA national event competition. The Mopar entries dominated the match race action because of the superior weight-transfer characteristics of its new body design. Ford drivers found themselves at a disadvantage because they were forbidden by the factory to modify their legal A/FX cars, so Bonner countered by creating a match race style '65 Falcon constructed at the famous Holman Moody shop in Charlotte.
Though some of the Funny Car racers were starting to use nitro, there were still plenty of races where the participants could run with gasoline, and that's where Bonner's Falcon excelled. "The Falcon was absolutely unbeatable on gas," said Bonner. "It was the only 427 Falcon that was equipped with an ellipticalspring- front-suspension design, which was similar to the A/FX Mustangs. This car ran in the nines at about 144 mph. We won about 40 rounds in a row with that car."
Not only was Bonner's Falcon nearly unbeatable, but it was also very popular with the track operators, which booked the car three to five times a week.
In 1966, Ford started to focus some of their attention on Funny Cars, and factory drivers, like Bonner, were given stretched-wheelbase Mustangs that quickly dipped into the eightsecond zone. Bonner ran his Mustang for the next couple of seasons and also participated in Super Stock at NHRA national events, driving a SS/B 427-cid Fairlane in 1967 and a SS/E 428- cid Cobra Jet Mustang in 1968.
For the 1969 season, Bonner was prepared to drive his wildest Funny Car ever, a tube-framed Ford Torino with a flip-top body built by the Logghe Bros. "But Ford was starting to pull out of Funny Car racing at the time," said Bonner, "and without factory support, it just didn't make sense for me to continue racing." To make matters worse, Bonner's shop was broken into and much of his racing equipment was stolen. "I decided to retire from drag racing at that point and went back to selling cars," he said.
Bonner still attends drag races from time to time, including the NHRA national event in Atlanta, where he hooks up with his longtime Ford buddies Dick Brannan and Hubert Platt, along with making appearances at reunions and nostalgia events.
"That was a very exciting time in the 1960s," said Bonner. "What made it so great was that there were so many other good drivers and teams to race against. Guys like 'Dyno Don' Nicholson, Arnie Beswick, and the Ramchargers team kept you on your toes because they always came ready to race."
Of all the cars he drove, Bonner said his favorite was the '65 Falcon Funny Car. "The '66 Mustang was quicker and faster, but the Falcon was more fun because we still ran it with a manual four-speed. When we started to run in the eights with the Mustang, we had to switch to the automatic transmission. That made the car more consistent, but it took a lot of the enjoyment out of it as well. The Falcon was just a blast to drive, and it was also the car that I was best known for."