A Need for Speed

Nitro Funny Cars Are a Five-Decade Passion for Twig Ziegler

By Kathy Ursprung

What kind of man straps himself to a bomb, steps on the fuse, and sends himself hurtling through space?

A man with a 60-year love affair with speed.

Twig Ziegler grew up in The Dalles in the 1960s, drag racing with friends on the back roads of Wasco County. Eventually, he found his way to the quarter-mile track, racing cars he built himself. When that still wasn’t enough, he turned his talents to the world of nitro funny cars.

Twig raced professionally from 1970 to 1976, holding the world speed record in 1973 at 6.29 seconds for the quarter-mile, or 229 miles per hour.

Nitro funny cars are a special, high-powered class of organized drag racing. Today’s cars have as much as 4,000 horsepower.

“It’s like being shot out of a cannon,” Twig says.

He continued to race funny cars part-time for the better part of four decades.

Today, Twig is behind the scenes, running an entire funny-car operation for Tim Boychuk—a trucking company owner from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

Twig’s life could have gone in a different direction. Not an inspired student, he worked for a wheat rancher while in high school. The rancher he worked for suggested a course of action.

“He says, ‘A high school diploma isn’t going to get you any work. You’re interested in cars. Why don’t you go to Portland and go to trade school?’ ”

That’s just what Twig did. He earned his GED diploma and enrolled in the automotive and diesel machine shop program at Multnomah College, now Portland State University.

Racer Twig Ziegler
Longtime racer Twig Ziegler oversees a million-dollar racing operation for this funny car owned by Tim Boychuk.

“I graduated on Friday, went to work on Monday and I’ve never been without a job since,” Twig says.

He was working at a car dealership that sponsored the Whipple and McCullough nitro funny car—the national record holder at the time.

The company suggested he build a funny car with its name on it. It would provide the motor, transmission and rear end. Those plans went awry, and Twig was left with parts but no sponsor. He still had the funny-car bug.

In the winter of 1969, Twig sold his house. He took the equity and went to Los Angeles and bought a Keith Black racing engine. He told his boss he was taking a 30-day leave of absence.

“Fifty years later, I still haven’t gotten this out of my system,” Twig says.

Despite safety precautions, it’s a dangerous sport.

Twig is responsible for one safety innovation. He crashed at a race in Boise, flipping end over end eight times. He crushed his hand, folding the steering wheel in the process. He couldn’t hold on to it. His leg came out and his entire left side was crushed.

“When I stopped, I was upside down,” he says. “The only thing left was the roll cage.”

As a result, in addition to other safety restraints, drivers’ arms are strapped to the seatbelt so neither arms nor legs can come out.

For six years, Twig made a good living racing professionally. By his final year, he was ready for a break.

“I ran like 117 races that year,” he says. “I was worn out. My car was worn out.”

He was offered a teaching job at Blue Mountain Community College. He accepted the offer and taught automotive, diesel, and body and fender classes.

“I was going to try it for a year, just to see if I’d like it, and I loved it,” Twig says. “The kids were great. Most of them grew up on farms and liked to know how things work.”

Twig continued to race in the summers while teaching in the winters, until his retirement in 2002, after 27 years.

He tried some of the typical retirement hobbies, including fishing and show cars—all to no avail.

“I’ve got to have something that’s fast and furious,” Twig says.

About 10 years ago, Twig built a funny car based on a 1974 Plymouth Satellite. He raced it for about five years.

Racing got too expensive, so he rented his car out to other drivers for the next five years.

Tim Boychuk was the last one to drive Twig’s car. He convinced Twig to park the Satellite, which is in the World of Speed Museum in Wilsonville. Now Twig runs Tim’s entire operation and oversees his crew.

The power of this funny-car engine hurtles the driver down the track “like being shot out of a cannon,” Twig says.

Twig drives a custom-built two-level semi. A machine shop is on the bottom level. The top level is for the race car and living quarters.

He and his girlfriend, Libby, take it from race to race. They traveled all across the Pacific Northwest and Canada this year.

“I rebuild the cylinder heads, rebuild the motors,” Twig says. “I carry three motors in the trailer and one in the car.”

Between races, the couple return home to The Dalles to unload and reload the trailer.

Today’s cars are high-tech machines, and Twig relies on computer data.

“Tim’s car and my car will take readings every 100th of a second on the track: air-fuel ratio, lower boost, G force, engine RPM, wheel speed on the front and rear wheels,” Twig says. “It’s extremely sophisticated stuff.”

Even so, he says there’s an added “something” at play.

“The second year we ran (Tim’s car), we were the car to beat in the world,” Twig says. “The next year, all of a sudden something changed and the car slowed down about a 10th of a second.”

He tried a variety of adjustments but couldn’t recover the time.

“We went from a 5.70 (second) car to a 5.80, and everybody else went from 5.80 to 5.70,” he says.

Twig has since rebuilt the car and finally thinks he fixed the problem.

“When you hit the sweet spot where they’re happy, they’ll go out and run their hearts out, like a horse,” he says. “When they’re not happy, you can blow them up, burn them up and it doesn’t make them run any better. You have to have all eight cylinders left at the end of the quarter-mile.”