Clare Sanders, pictured here next to Miss Winternationals 1969, Marsha Bennett, was one of the original pioneers and drivers of the Funny Car Class. Image: FOX Special on YouTube
The ’60s brought about a slew of advancements in the automotive industry. Not only did they play host to the beginning of the musclecar era, they also brought about new racing genres that we still enjoy today, particularly of the Funny Car variety.
With the new class of racing vehicles came a new group of Chevy greats, including “Jungle Jim” Liberman and his cohort “Jungle Pam” Hardy. But the story of Jungle Jim and his team wouldn’t be complete without taking a look at one of Liberman’s most well-known drivers, “Jungle Clare” Sanders!
Born in Alaska, Sanders spent a chunk of his childhood in the 49th state before relocating with his family to Washington State. It was while living in Washington in 1960 that Sanders made his way into the racing scene while attending college That’s when he paired up with mechanic Jim St. Clair on a number of cars, including a 426 Max-Wedge A/Gas car.
Lime Fire, the original team car of Jack Groner, Jim St. Clair and driver Clare Sanders. Image: NHRA
As the mid-’60s approached, Sanders and St. Clair moved to Northern California. Based out of San Jose, the pair raced the 1963 and 1964 seasons before meeting Jack Groner, a wealthy, retired businessman looking to get in on the racing boom. The trio’s first undertaking was the start-up of J&J Enterprises, a company founded in 1965. Their company supplied liquid traction compound for drag strips known as “Boss Bite.”
With the success of Boss Bite, the trio opted to turn their investment into a race team. The first car they debuted was “Lime Fire”, a 392-powered Chrysler-equipped Barracuda, featuring a custom Logghe-style chassis, Torqueflite transmission, and a lime green paint scheme. Though it ran in the Super Eliminator Class for awhile, the Funny Car class was gaining popularity, and Lime Fire is still known as one of the first blown and injected, tube-chassis Funny Cars.
Sanders is still alive and well, and even attends major events like the 50th Anniversary Funny Car Celebration that was held at the Circle K NHRA Winternationals this past January. Image: NHRA
Piloted by Clare Sanders for the 1966 and 1967 seasons, the car gained almost instant notoriety, winning its debut NHRA divisional race at Carlsbad Raceway. As the team’s popularity grew, Sanders become good friends with another Funny Car racer, Jim Liberman. While sharing space at a shop known as the Funny Farm with Liberman, the two hit it off early, and remained friends while touring the country.
Like many other new Funny Cars, Lime Fire was entertaining crowds on raceways all across the country, and even took second place at the 1968 AHRA Winternationals. But, the hard life on the drag circuit ultimately retired the car towards the end of the year.
Sanders stands with (from left to right) mechanic Carl Dubow, “Miss Winternationals” Marsha Bennett, Bobbie and Jim Liberman in this photo, taken after his history-making win at the NHRA Winternational in 1969. Image: NHRA
In 1968, Liberman decided to add another car to his already successful one-car team, so he turned to his friend Sanders to pilot the other car. A nearly exact replica of Liberman’s car was built and entrusted to Sanders as they raced under the “Jungle Jim” livery. Before the second was painted in its Jungle Jim blue, Sanders’ first race for Liberman was against “Dyno” Don Nicholson in late 1968. Sanders won on a hole shot, with both hitting a trap time of 7.86 seconds.
The official debut of both cars was in early 1969, at the AHRA Winternationals before the pair made their way to the NHRA Winternationals and the official West Coast Funny Car Class debut. There the pair made history, but that’s a story for another day!