Words by Tony Thacker | Images courtesey of the Rat Trap team
Editor’s Note: Ron Hope’s “Rat Trap” will be featured at select 2017 Goodguys Vintage Drag Races as well as Thunderfest exhibitions…
Beginning in 1963, with Dean Moon and Mickey Thompson, there has been a history of American drag racers taking their racecars on the “Grand Tour” of Europe. Fifty years on, the tradition continues as Ron and Brian Hope of Rat Trap Racing continue a 50th Anniversary World Tour.
The history of the Rat Trap AA/Fuel Altered is as storied as any in drag racing, however, before there was a Rat Trap there was the T-bodied Altered of Butch Pipins and Don Green circa 1966. Pipins owned and drove the car while Green, from Pomona, California, built and owned the blown fuel Chrysler Hemi.
While the first car had a square cage, the second version of the car sported a more conventional hooped roll cage and a slightly dropped buggy sprung tube axle replacing the slotted I-beam. This car also sported a front mounted wing.
In 1968, the year Pipins drove his best of 8.29 at 189.86 mpg, the pair parted company as Green had debuted the Rat Trap. The first iteration was a blown Chevy-powered Austin Bantam-bodied Roadster built by Ron Boswell and Don Green in 1965. Scary looking, it had a chute mounted high on the roll cage.
Ron eventually sold out to Don who swapped in a 392 Hemi, painted the body bright yellow and went on to win the 1968 Drag News Championships at Lions with George “The Stone-Age Man” Hutcheson behind the butterfly. Complete with plumed helmet, George ran regular 8.70 ETs at 170 mph.
It was not easy though as the car, like many short wheelbase Fuel Altereds was a handful. There’s a great story on DragList.com by George’s son Todd called Taming The Rat Trap where Todd describes his father’s first ride in the car at San Fernando and subsequent eliminations at Irwindale. There, he battled through a large field only to get beaten in the final by “Wild Willie” Borsch in the Winged Express. Click the link above to read the full story, Taming the Rat Trap.
Hard of handling, that first car that looked like it was broken in the middle was conventional in that it had a straight tube front axle and a low slung buggy spring. Another of several shoes, “Hand grenade Harry” Hibler says, “The engine was so close if I undid the harness I could operate the throttle by hand.”
For the following season, Green had chassis builder Dennis Watson of Norco, California, design an unconventional 100-inch chassis with independent Volkswagen torsion bar front suspension and friction shocks. Green’s 392 Hemi-powered a ’32 Cal Automotive Bantam roadster body the first version of which was painted a unique combination of Candy Red and Pearl Yellow by Bill Carter. The car, now with a wing mounted on the roll cage, was featured in the July 1970 issue of Popular Hot Rodding. There was also a great double-page spread in the September 1970 issue of HOT ROD Magazine taken by Pat Broiler showing the car well sideways.
In the hands of driver “Dangerous Dan” Collins, the new car ran 7.24 at 200.88 mph—an obvious improvement. Unfortunately, at Irwindale’s 5th Annual Independence Day Championships Collins pulled a red in the first round against Ed Moore in “The MOB”. Other Rat Trap shoes included Chuck Burch, Dan Geiger, Dennis Geisler and Frank “The Hawk” Harris.
Many competitors questioned the unique independent front suspension (IFS) and indeed, the weight of the Hemi caused the suspension to sag. Consequently, coil-over shocks replaced the VW assembly. Despite the naysayers, the new Rat Trap was so successful it was one of four cars that made up the legendary Fuel Altered Tours of 1970, ’71, and ’72 with the Winged Express, Pure Heaven II and the Magnificent 7.
A member of the 1970 team was Ron Hope, the current owner and driver, along with his son Brian. Born and raised in Whittier, California, Hope hung around Ak Miller’s shop on Whittier Boulevard and became fast friends with fellow Bonneville racer Jerry Kugel.
Unfortunately, despite their crowd-pleasing popularity, the NHRA decided to lump the Fuel Altereds into Super Comp Eliminator. According to photographer Steve Reyes, an undisputed Fuel Altered fan, “Now, instead of having their own eliminations, they had to win their class at NHRA national events and then have a handicap start in the Super Comp qualifiers.” Nobody liked this and as everybody anticipated it was the start of the end as Funny Cars and Pro Stock took precedence.
At the end of the 1972 tour, Green sold the car to Dennis Fowler. Incidentally, apparently for one month only, Rat Trap sported a very large wing mounted atop the engine. It lasted such a short time not because it didn’t work but because Green kept cracking his head on it. Nile Cornelison’s Cornelison Speed Automotive of Creston, Iowa, also sponsored the car at that time.
Rat Trap re-appeared in 1973 as a Plymouth Satellite bodied Funny Car painted in a similar style to the Altered. Again, it too featured a Dennis Watson chassis and was apparently used as a rolling test bed. Tom Ferraro, Jim Adolph, and Denny Savage all drove and the car ultimately became the first Sundance flopper in ’74 with Tripp Shumake at the helm. Green, meanwhile, went on to field another Rat Trap FC in the mid-70s with a Mustang Mach 1 body.
Fast Forward 20 years to 1995 when both Green and Hope are at the Bonneville Salt Flats. They reconnect and decide to recreate the 1968 configuration and campaign the nostalgia events that are gaining in popularity across the U.S. Green had some parts including a Strange rear end and would, of course, build the engine—an iron block 392. Naturally, the frame was laid out by Dennis Watson but in this case, it was tacked together by John Pecora and finished by Bob Meli who also did the detail work.
Unfortunately, during its first year out at Thunder Valley, Oklahoma City, in 1997, they pushed the side out of the block. That, in turn, set the car on fire, burned off the chute causing the car to turn over and go into the guardrail. The whole left side of the car was destroyed—the right side though looked pretty good.
As a result of that accident, Ron decided to make the switch to aluminum Donovan blocks and they have used those ever since. Nevertheless, Rat Trap was rebuilt within a few weeks in time for the California Hot Rod Reunion albeit it in primer. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t be the last outing in primer.
After an eventful life that included three front halves and two roll cages it was decided to retire the car, turn it into a static display, and build another. There are now two running racecars so that one can be in transit to an event overseas while the other can be raced in the U.S. or Canada. Son Brian is now the crew chief, logistics expert, engine builder and part-time driver. He can also often be found behind the wheel of Rich Guasco’s Pure Hell. Running on 90 percent nitro Ron’s best performance to date is a 6.35 E.T. and a speed of 231 mph. However, one of the team’s coolest experiences was allowing 6-year-old Anthony Ingram to explore Rat Trap—you see Anthony suffers from Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis and is blind. “Allowing Anthony to run his hands over Rat Trap was a moving experience.” Said Hope, “One that made you realize how lucky the rest of us are taking our sight for granted.”
To celebrate Rat Trap’s 50th anniversary the car went on tour to England, Germany and Canada in 2016 and trips further afield to New Zealand and a return to Goodwood are planned for 2017 along with a number of Goodguys events. Of course, Rat Trap has raced overseas before: At the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2004, 2013 and again in 2014. It has also raced in Canada several times and in 2012 and 2015 in New Zealand where Hope’s exploits “down under” are well known because of an off-road excursion into a stream at Rod Millen’s Leadfoot Festival. Again, a quick rebuild resulted in the car appearing at the Holley National Hot Rod Reunion in primer.
While primer is barely acceptable to Ron and Brian, I, probably along with the vast majority of fans, don’t care too much because Ron and his team always put on a spectacular show with wild, fast action-packed races and that’s what drag racing, especially Fuel Altereds, is all about. For more information about Rat Trap racing and a full schedule got to RatTrapRacing.com