A TRIBUTE TO JUNGLE JIM LIBERMAN
a remembrance by Berserko
Originally published September 9,
2002 - Nitronic Research
Photos by Norman Blake, Dave Milcarek,
Bob Plumer, Jeff Tinsley, Vince Mele
|He was born Russell James Liberman but was known quite simply as, "Jungle
Drag racing's master showman was pronounced dead as the result of an auto
accident early in the morning on September 9, 1977. It was on that
day that the sport of drag racing lost the most popular funny car driver
it had ever seen.
"JJ" burst onto the Northern California drag racing scene in the mid-60s,
racing cars he built himself. During the next 15 years he built his reputation
and a dynasty, putting on the wildest Funny Car show drag racing fans
had ever seen. A fire burnout and smoke to the finish line was Jungle's
trademark and the fans ate it up.
There are a million stories to tell about Jungle, one wilder than the
last and most of them true. His life has been chronicled in magazines
such as Hot Rod, Super Stock and others, detailing his career, the ups
and the downs, the alcohol and drug abuse and his skirt chasing.
But there was another side to Jungle. The side the fans saw. Here was
a guy who would take time to talk to anybody while he was working on his
car, hang around him long enough and he'd serenade you with a harmonica
solo. Meet him at the local watering hole after the races and have a beer
with him. That was the Jungle I knew.
I wanted to remember my friend in a special way, so with the help of some
of the sport's greatest photographers, and his family and friends, here
are some photos (some never before seen) and rememberances of the late,
great Jungle Jim Liberman.
|A long strange trip...
by "Jungle" Bobbie Liberman
|| When JJ worked for Goodies he
once put a 427 chevy into a Jag XKE, I swear. It took a lot of
fabrication but he did it. It had short Hillborn injectors on
it and they took the hood to a body shop to have the natural bump
down the hood made taller to allow for the injectors. Before the
guy picked it up we took it out on First Street in San Jose on
Friday nite a few times. JJ would follow me in another car and
watch me blow the guys off at the green light. It was hard to
keep on the ground, had WAY too much horsepower and torque for
the little car. It did shit and get tho, once you got the front
wheels back on the ground. When JJ and I first met he had a black
'57 chev with a 427.
| Unfortunately, he did not have
a driver's license, so, fortunately for me, I got to drive it
to high school. I would go out to Coffin Road in Sunnyvale after
school and street race. When he found out I was racing it he unhooked
the linkage to the second 4 bbl carb. I then learned to hook it
back up. Then he took it off completely. I went and bought my
own. He started his racing career with that car. We would go to
Vacaville or Fremont and race it. When we got married he still
did not have a license, so I drove us from the wedding to the
reception in that car, in full long wedding dress and veil. What
a long strange trip it has been.
| JUNGLE MAKES HIS ENTRANCE
by Pat Foster
At Atco, NJ. In about '72, we were supposed to race Jungle in
a match race deal. First round went down at 8:00 p.m. sharp! Well,
its 7:45 and still no Jungle (hard to believe huh)?
|The track lines up some local
leaker and says to me, "Run this bozo and maybe he'll show by
the second round." We pull up and I'm dressed and just getting
in, everyone in the joint stands up and begins chanting "JUNGLE!
JUNGLE! JUNGLE!" All eyes are on the highway that goes by the
track. The starter starts yelling at my guys "Get him in the car!
Get him in the car! I look where everybody is looking and here
comes Jungle, strapped in, motor lit and sending flames above
the roof, driving that bitch from where they unloaded it out by
the highway, past the gates and the ticket booth, through the
parking lot and one end of the pits, right out onto the starting
line, and then through the water for a huge, smokey burn out!
And the crowd went WILD! I had time for one squeaky little chirp
behind the line, they booed us. Then we blaze the tires against
Jungle and again the crowd goes INSANE!! Tough gig running the
Jungle man in his part of the country or anywhere else for that
matter; Jim was the King, hard ass racer and a great showman!
R. I. P., my man.
||In 1971 Jungle got hooked up with
Briggs Chevrolet in South Amboy, NJ who gave him a new Camaro
to paint up identical to his race car. As you can see it turned
out really cool. Jungle used this car for the 1971 season then
turned it back in. Danny Zack, former owner of the dealership,
still has this car in his collection.
|In 1976, Jungle ran both a blue
and a red Monza in Funny Car while good friend Ron Attenbury campaigned
this Top Fueler under Jungle's colors.
||The blue Monza is shown here at
Maple Grove's annual mid-summer Funny Car race in 1976 and the
dragster shot is from the same year at the NHRA Winternationals.
|Here's a shot of Jungle's Romeo
Palamedies built 1972 Vega from Englishtown in the spring of 1972.
This was one of Jungle's favorite cars and he reluctantly sold
it to "Nitro" Nick Boninfante to raise money to pay for a new
car coming. Boninfante changed the nose of the car to make it
a '74 Vega and ran it for a few years. This car currently resides
in Don Garlits' museum and has been beautifully restored. The
infamous "Mr. J", who originally lettered the car during the winter
of '71, re-lettered the car 25 years later and said it was like
||Wednesday night - under the lights
at Englishtown running the Blue Max in 1976.
||Burnouts were Jungle's signature
at drag strips all across the country, here's a shot from Englishtown
of Jungle doing what he did best, put on a show.
| Here's the final round of Funny
Car from the 1975 NHRA Summernationals. Jungle in his red Vega
up against Tom Prock (father of current John Force tuner Jimmy)
driving Fred Castranova's "Custom Body" Dodge. This was an unusual
final round as it was run on a Tuesday morning around 1 a.m. after
the Summernationals were deluged by rain since Sunday. Jungle
won his first NHRA National event title with a 6.49 - 220.04 as
Prock couldn't hook up.
||When you drive a Nitro Funny Car
and your name is Jungle Jim you'd better be prepared for any eventuality.
Whether on fire or wheelstanding to the sky, Jungle had it under
|As a surprise for Jungle on his
birthday at a mid-week test session at Englishtown I decided to
freak him out by taking Pam's place by pouring the water for the
burnout and backing him up naked. There are other photos
of this day but are not suitable for the faint of heart. Needless
to say Jungle couldn't believe his eyes. (Berserko Bob)
|I first met Jungle in June of
1970. I was fresh out of the Marine Corps and was working at my
Dad's flower shop and part time at Englishtown every time the
track was open. Raceway Park had scheduled the first, of what
would become many, Wednesday night races featuring the hottest
Funny Cars from the all over the country so I went to the track
early to check out the scene. Pulled into the pits about 11 a.m.
and there were two of the Funny Cars I had only read about in
magazines but never seen in person, Lew Arrington's "Brutus" and
"Jungle Jim." I parked, and a little in awe, walked over to see
what was going on. Jungle had the engine apart, stuff was spread
out all over and Bobbie (Jungle's wife at the time) was sorting
laundry on the back of the ramp truck. Jungle looked up, asked
me if I knew the area and where he could find a Laundromat and
someplace good to eat. I suggested he take a ride into Old Bridge,
about 5 miles away, he responded by saying why don't you take
us? So we all hopped into my Chevy wagon and off we went. We hit
the Laundromat, then went to the legendary Cantore's (now Vitale's)
Bar & Grill for lunch. So there I was with Jungle, his wife and
crew, Lew Arrington and his guy, eating lunch, joking around and
having the time of my life with two guys who I considered heroes
of mine. We finished lunch, picked up the laundry, went back to
the track and Jungle and Lew finished up buttoning up their engines
for the night's festivities. After the races, we all, along with
a couple of other Funny Car teams and a whole lot of fans went
back to Cantore's and closed the place. On the way out to the
parking lot Jungle asked me if I'd like to go on the road with
him for the next couple of weeks on his east coast tour. I freaked
out! Told him I'd be ready in an hour, follow me. We went to my
apartment, I packed my shit, called my Dad at 3 a.m. and told
him that I wouldn't be at work for a while (he wasn't too happy
about that) and hopped into Jungle's ramp truck and I was on the
road with the "Jungle Jim Funny Car Show." The schedule was Connecticut
Dragway Thursday night, Napierville Canada Friday night, New England
Dragway Saturday night, Sunday at York Dragway and Monday at Cincinnati,
an unbelievable schedule for anybody else but Jungle. That wild
week was the start of my friendship with Jungle, we shared a lot
of laughs and good times and the following 2 winters I spent on
tour with him are some of my fondest memories. Going to the west
coast with Jungle and running at places like Orange County, Irwindale,
Ontario, Fremont, Carlsbad and other legendary tracks are experiences
I'll never forget. Jungle and I remained good friends up until
his untimely death and I miss him a lot. I'll always remember
Jungle saying "Drag Racing is F-A-R O-U-T...."
||Jungle in the Winner's Circle
at the 1975 NHRA Summernationals after the final round was run
at about 2 a.m. on a Tuesday morning after the race was rained
out on Sunday and Monday and Tuesday...
|Winston's Richard Dilworth joins
Pam, Wally Parks and Jungle in the winner's circle.
||This is the '77 red Monza that
was Jungle's next to last car.
|Austin Coil once remarked in 1975
that, "Jungle had the best two rides in drag racing."
||A rainout at Englishtown found
Jungle and John Bateman's "Atlas Oil Tool Special" Maverick on
the popular (at the time) ramp trucks everyone used back then
in 1971 waiting out the weather.
|In 1975 one of the most popular
draws in Funny Car match racing was Jungle & Shirley, shown here
in the staging lanes at Maple Grove.
||The meeting of the minds.
Big Mike, Dick Harrell, and Jungle.
|Jungle racing Shirley's Top Fuel
car at a Wednesday night at Englishtown in 1977
||The last car.
|John Force Has Got Nothing On
Jungle... Do you think John Force was the first to have a three-car
Funny Car team?
| Wrong...Jungle had an armada
of Funny Cars (as many as four in 1975) chris-crossing the country
match-racing up a storm with drivers such as Clare Sanders, Pete
Williams, Jake Crimmins, Russell Long, Roy Harris and many others
running the match races Jungle booked but couldn't (or didn't
want to) make.
||Jungle's 1971 Camaro at Englishtown
with the legendary "White Peter" Pete White, directing.
| This must have been the very
first year that Jungle went back East to race because he still
had the shop in Philly and had not moved out to West Chester
yet. Well, he and the boys got hold of a mini bike, which folks
used to use to run around the pits at the races, and decided
to "fix it up". JJ built a header pipe on the exhaust and they
tricked up the little engine to run on alcohol. It was really
fast and ever so much fun as long as you had it under power;
if you let up on the throttle a big flame came straight up out
of the exhaust pipe and set the back of your shirt on fire.
JJ got on it one afternoon and zoomed off up the street by the
shop and right smack dab into a telephone pole. As I remember
he had many stitches in his knee and could not bend his leg
for a while; we would actually use silver tape and tape his
right foot to the accelerator pedal in the race car and he raced
this way for some time that long ago summer. It was at this
same shop that the police came once to speak to them about the
homemade cannon they were using to fire full cans of beer up
into the sky which then were landing in people's yards... JBobbie
||Here's Jungle at Englishtown
from August of 1977 in the last car he would ever drive. This
was the first public apperance of the orange car with 7-11 livery.
He was killed about 10 days after this shot was taken.
Beserko Bob asked me to
write a few paragraphs about my father, the late 'Jungle' Jim
Liberman. But, I must be truthful to the racing world, I really
never got the opportunity many of you had to get to know or see
my father. As many people know, my parents separated when I was
young (3 years old), and we lived on the west coast while he lived
on the east coast. From the time my parents separated and my father's
car accident I only recall seeing him twice. Once as he was passing
through southern California for a race (I was 7-8), and once before
we moved to Oregon from Kentucky (I was 9). Most of my memories
I have are from the stories people have told me throughout the
years. The few I do have, I have decided to keep my own. Not to
sound selfish, for I would love nothing more than to share them
as people have shared theirs with me, but for me they are something
I hold on to dearly. As one would with something (material item)
they had gotten from a parent who had passed away. I hope everyone
can understand this, and by all means, if you run into me and
want to share a memory I would love to hear it. Nothing makes
me happier in finding out how my father "touched" people's lives.
In closing, I do have one request, if you have a son/daughter,
take a minute and give them a hug and tell them how much you love
them. And make some time for them, trust me, nothing will make
them prouder than to have mom and dad their watching them, that
all important business meeting can wait. For us older kids who
have some broken fences to mend, you know who you are, take 2
minutes out of your day and give the folks a ring...even if just
to say hi. And upon my own advice, MoM, are you free for dinner?
Lets mend our broken fence. I wish everyone peace and good health.
James "Randy" Liberman