Known for his showmanship on the track, as well as being named one of the NHRA‘s top 50 drivers of all time, “Jungle Jim” Liberman lived his life in the fast lane to say the least. One of the country’s most popular Funny Car drivers in the ’60s and ’70s, Liberman was not only talented behind the wheel of his famous Chevy-based race cars, but also as a showboating front man for the entire sport of drag racing. But Liberman wasn’t always a famous racecar driver. In fact, his career in racing didn’t start until he made his way to Northern California at the young age of 19.
Born in Pennsylvania, on September 12th, 1945, Russell James “Jim” Liberman was known from a very young age for doing his own thing. A racer at heart with just enough of a daring attitude to push even his own limits a little bit, Lieberman got into cars like many young men did in the ’60s, and eventually purchased a 1957 Chevy with a 427ci V8 under the hood. According to his wife, Bobbi Liberman, in a tribute to the late Jungle Jim from 2002 that appears on Header Flames, it was in this car that Lieberman got his first start in racing.
After moving to Northern California in 1964, Liberman started working for Goodies Speed Shop. While there, he excelled, and quickly took his knowledge and skill of building and driving powerful cars to the drag strip. At the time, he met Lew Arrington Jr, one of the original guys in the grassroots of Funny Car racing, in late 1965.
While Liberman had raced in the Stock Class at Fremont Raceway as an amateur in his ’57 Chevy, he then made a huge leap to the Funny Car world in 1965, behind the wheel of a nitromethane-fueled Hercules Nova. but, it was Arrington’s supercharged, altered-wheelbase “Brutus” GTO that really helped launch Liberman into the world of national racing fame in the mid ’60s.
Liberman had only one NHRA win to his name as a driver, but his team took a second NHRA Funny Car win in 1969 at the Winternationals with Clare Sanders behind the wheel.
By 1966, Liberman was drawing crowds on his own, racing a Chevy II he had built himself. But, it wasn’t just the pure speed and the newness of Funny Car racing that made Liberman stand out – it was his showmanship, something Liberman was known for throughout his racing career.
One of the last photos taken of Liberman before his tragic death.
(Side Note: Now, you might be thinking this is where we tell you that Liberman’s nickname came about from all of his crazy antics or showboating on the track, but you’d be mistaken. Oddly enough, it’s said that Liberman just came up with the moniker and liked the way it sounded. It was catchy and easy to remember. That’s it.)
In 1967, Liberman went on tour drag racing all over the country, solidifying himself as a household name among drag racing fans. In 1968, Liberman started promoting two different race cars, and taking on a second driver, Claire Sanders.
From there, Liberman’s career exploded. It didn’t matter if it was a match-race or an NHRA-sanctioned event, Liberman was there. When he was in town, he was know for doing wheel stands, smokey burnouts and flaunting his girlfriend “Jungle Pam” on the starting line of any drag strip he raced (Pam came into the picture in the early ’70s). It was shows of flair like this that earned Liberman his massive fan base. In fact, the fan base was even bigger than those of drivers and cars that were sponsored by manufactures and ran even faster 1/4 mile ETs than he or his cars did. This was a huge plus for Chevrolet, as Liberman always stayed true to his Bow Tie-wielding race cars, and brought plenty of race fans to the Chevy banner.
Unfortunately, Liberman’s career only lasted until the fall of 1977. it was a sad day on September 9th, 1977, that Liberman was killed in a tragic car accident, in which his ’72 Corvette collided with a bus. This occurred just three days before his 32nd birthday.