SCORE Journal


SCORE Journal - The Official Publication of SCORE Off-Road Racing

Issue link:

Contents of this Issue


Page 90 of 104

Flight of the Buggy Lynn Chenowth gave the desert racing world a class of vehicle that continues to be a mainstay in off-road motorsports By Larry Saavedra Photos Courtesy Lynn Chenowth Archives With its storied history and traditions that date back to the 1960s, the buggy of yesteryear influenced innovations never before seen, like the wicked SCORE Class 1 Jimco Hammerhead featured in the November 2019 issue of SCORE Journal. Some suggest that if it were not for the early buggies that were created by innovators like Lynn Chenowth, today’s high-tech builds would look and feel a whole lot different. During the mid to late ‘60s, the popularity of open-wheel buggy racing was starting to expand beyond recreational vehicles driven in sand dunes. There were homebuilt, tunnel-buggies and fiberglass buggies being raced and ultimately made their way to the 1967 Mexican 1000, thanks to Bruce Meyer’s fiberglass Manx. While the Meyers Manx made history winning the race, it wasn’t until the time that Lynn Chenowth, stepped onto the scene in ’69, creating a demand for his mass-produced chassis kit made out of mild steel tubing. Chenowth Racing Products was originally a header manufacturer for circle track and drag cars, but Chenowth changed course and pursued buggy building, which introduced the Chenowth Formula 1 to the off-road racing world. Built-It-Yourself Kit The Formula 1 kit was made from mild steel tubing and could be assembled in a garage by anyone with reasonable fabrication skills. It had the rigidity of a serious race car and it immediately gave racers an option to the underperforming VW chassis, and had the added benefit of a safety roll-cage. According to Chenowth, that was the beauty of the chassis kit. He recalls racers commenting that the design was perfect for racing and it ultimately helped bring the sport of off-roading to a broader audience. “The welded buggy frames were expensive to ship, so I built a knock-down kit that shipped for about a fifth of the price,” said Lynn Chenowth. “I don’t recall exactly how many kits we sold from that day forward, but our biggest month was 419 frames. At this time Funco did not have a kit. At the start we sold three kits for every one completed car.” Ironically, the late Gill George who started Funco, also began as a header builder and saw the need for a racing buggy. Family of Buggy Builders Chenowth is a self-taught craftsman. To this day, he believes his pioneering spirit came from his great-grandfather Gus, who in the mid-1800s was well-known in the freighting business in the West. Gus also experimented in suspension systems for his buggies and wagons which were revolutionary at the time. “Even though we’re separated by at least four generations, I’m surprised to learn of how similar our skills and interests were,” said Chenowth. Without the help of AutoCAD software available to today’s buggy builders, Chenowth introduced his designs by hand, sketching everything using T-squares, angles, and whatever drafting tools were available before the vehicle design could be prototyped in the shop. According to Chenowth that made for some sleepless nights in his El Cajon, California shop. Fortunately, Chenowth’s son Rory became an integral part of his chassis building and team management business during the early years. “The turn-key Chenowth buggy at the time was $1,600,” he said. “It had junkyard VW engine, transmission and components like pedals, front end and suspensions. It was the most affordable way to run Baja.” The Early ‘70s Chenowth kicked off the ’70s just as multi-time SCORE Champion Bobby Ferro tore up the racing field. It took a while to unseat the two from their continued wins, but Chenowth racers toughed it out. Soon some of the biggest names in desert racing were winning at events like the SCORE Baja 1000 and SCORE Baja 500. Chenowth learned from the success and failures, always reinventing and improving with each reincarnation of his original design. The early model welded cars were changed to 4130 chrome-moly to make them stronger. In ’72, the first two-seater was built for Bill Hrynko when Ferro was dominating the field in his Funco Sandmaster. In ’73, Ivan Stewart drove Hrynko’s Chenowth to the company’s first overall SCORE Baja 500 win. Stewart was scheduled to race in a Class 2 buggy with Hrynko, but unfortunately Hrynko suffered a broken leg prior to the event. Stewart then took the wheel and drove the entire race solo to victory. In ’76 Stewart would again drive a Chenowth to victory this time in the SCORE Baja 1000, eventually earning his nickname “Ironman” from SCORE’s owner Mickey Thompson. Over the next 12 years the Chenowth chassis would win the Overall SCORE Baja 1000 multiple times over. Chenowth buggies got a reputation of being hard to beat with a record ten SCORE Baja 1000 Overall Champions from ’76 to ‘90. (1976 Ivan Stewart, 1978 Mark Stahl, 1980 Mark Stahl, 1981 Mark McMillin, 1983 Mark McMillin, 1984 Mark McMillin, 1986 Mark McMillin, 1987 Bob Gordon, 1988 Mark McMillin, 1990 Bob Gordon). The McMillins, who have some of the most wins in a Chenowth buggy, first got excited about the chassis in the late ‘70s. Corky McMillin and his sons Mark and Scott, raced several generations of Chenowth designs in multiple SCORE classes through the years, giving them names like Beagle, Beagle II, Red Dog and Macadu. They took their share of wins with Chenowth including the ’79 SCORE Baja 1000, ’81 SCORE Parker 400, ’82 SCORE Parker 400, ’83 SCORE San Felipe 250, ’84 SCORE Baja 1000, and many more. The Wedge In the ‘70s Chenowth followed the Formula 1 with the single-seat Wedge design, which used a VW front and rear styled suspension with 9 inches of travel. “At 100 inches in length, the Wedge was the first real independent rear suspension car that had success with disk brakes, and a VW oil-cooled motor,” said Chenowth. “At that time the other buggy chassis manufacturers were at 92 inches. Only 11 Wedge designs were made.” To allow the driver to sit upright for better visibility, the roll-cage was raised, but it was jokingly referred to as the phone booth by Chenowth’s friends. Chenowth acknowledged that the Funco was more laid back. “It had a nice body on it and people bought it because it was better looking,” he said. “That’s when I learned that race car drivers, and those trying to be, were more interested in the way it looked than the functional safety aspect of the design.” Although not as nice-looking as other buggies, the Wedge is credited as being the first single seat buggy built specifically for racing. According to Chenowth, a typical Wedge setup forty-plus years ago, would have included a VW 1600 engine, dual rear shocks, a large oil cooler, perhaps a side-mounted shifter, an air-foiled aluminum roof design, and a wicked looking Stinger exhaust. But the setups were totally personal to each team and driver. The Mears Gang in fact, had great success with the Wedge in the mid-‘70s. Chenowth recalls some racer saying that the Wedge was proof that you didn’t need four-wheel drive to conquer sand, ruts and other obstacles. Chenowth 1000 and 2000 The Wedge evolved into the Chenowth 1000. It moved the driver 10 inches forward for more front-end weight distribution. It also had a long back design that wrapped around the engine. There were also different cage heights. “We focused on the look of the car and sold more than 100 of these,” said Chenowth. After the success of the Chenowth 1000, the company launched the Chenowth 2000, which had an even longer wheelbase and an independent rear suspension. There was also a short-course five-link suspension model, which was almost unheard of in its day. Naturally, the McMillins, Mears, and other racers loved these designs and drove them to great success. Military Cars As the years went by, a Chenowth dealer in China Lake, California had sold a chassis to the military that would ultimately be built using remote control technology as a prototype for target vehicles. This was the first military contract for Chenowth, and the mild steel play buggies were built for moving targets and air assault training. Finding some success, the military issued a second contract for 120 VW powered buggies, which were distributed throughout the world to military installations for evaluation. The success resulted in the next order from the military, which was the DR2 chrome-molly race car chassis. Detour for Chenowth After years in desert and short-course racing, Chenowth Racing Products made a change in the direction of the business. “I never sold the racing division of the company but was simply not interested in the military and dune buggy business,” said Chenowth. “In ’80, I divided the company and let my good friend and current GM Mike Thomas, take the military business, and I stayed focused on the racing sector. Mike later went on to produce the Don Primm inspired Chenowth Millennium and I went out and developed the Magnum SC1.” Short Course According to Chenowth, the first successful non-VW suspension car was the Magnum SC1. It featured a five-link, two-stage rear suspension system. “The Gilman brothers were dominating in their Funco, but within a year they, along with most major teams, switched to the Chenowth Magnum,” he said. The Magnum, according to Chenowth, was a new technology and people obviously were apprehensive, but some racers like Butch Arciero suggested that the Magnum permanently changed short course racing. Along Came the DR1 and DR2 In the ‘80s the Chenowth DR1 single-seater and DR2 two-seater were created, both models featured up to 116 inches of wheelbase depending on the trailing arms and two-stage suspension systems. The DR1 also featured 16 inches of wheel travel and a wider front beam than the DR2. It’s been rumored that the first DR2s were made specifically for the McMillin family, most likely Corky. Chenowth doesn’t recall, but approximately 100 DR1 and DR2 designs were made in total. “What we learned is the rear-end could be setup with two shocks on the primary and secondary torsion bars of a VW housing,”said Chenowth. “This allowed for independent adjustment. A racer could also adjust the secondary torsion bars, which would act like an anti-sway bar.” That allowed for fine-tuning of the suspension, which was not available in the early Chenowth designs because bypass shocks didn’t exist at that time. The DR1 and DR2 had it all, and looked great. In fact, the DR2 chassis was so successful that it was used by the military during the U.S. Military’s invasion of Kuwait in ’90. As the years went by, Chenowth race cars saw the winner’s circle time after time, driven by racers such as Johnny Johnson, Pat Dean, Rory Chenowth, Dick Clark, Doug Fortin Sr., Doug Fortin Jr., Bill Silverthrone, Marty Coyne, Rory Ward, Al Arciero, Mike Lund, Roger and Rick Mears, Rudy Townsley, Cliff and Leonard Greaser, Bill Hrynko, Ivan Stewart, the McMillins, Bill Reams, Bon Rodine, Bob Gordon, Robby Gordon, Jack Johnson, Rob MacCachren and many more. Collectively Chenowth drivers have won more than 31 SCORE Baja 1000s. Chenowth Returns to Roots “I am a buggy guy and that’s why I designed the Mini Mag,” said Chenowth.” The Mini Mag in Chenowth’s view, became the shape of the future and helped to launch the popular UTV market, which would come 15 years later because of this vehicle. The Mini Mag was a single-seater Chenowth tube-frame construction wrapped in aluminum panels with a full-cage system for driver protection. To many it was considered the first production UTV with a belt-drive drivetrain. In fact, it was Chenowth who Yamaha contracted to help with the development of the first Yamaha Rhino UTV. The first 50 production Mini Mags sold for $13,950. It sported an A-arm suspension with 16-inches of travel front and rear, and Bilstein coil overs. It had four-wheel disc brakes and rack and pinion steering. It also featured a CNC Balance Bar braking system and CNC cutting brake. It was powered by a 92 horsepower snowmobile engine and had a 15 gallon Fuel Safe fuel cell. “I designed a transmission with forward and reverse for it that was belt driven” Chenowth said. Where Chenowth is Today After a lengthy and successful racing career, Chenowth says he’s as excited today about buggies as he was back in 1969. He’s currently building a new car called the DR2X with an experimental 600 horsepower Ford V6. It will be 10 percent bigger than the original DR2 with an estimated top speed of 150 mph. The car will have 18 inches of wheel travel. “The rest is a secret,” Chenowth said. “You’ll have to wait until it comes out.” The target date is sometime in 2020 for the DR2X. Chenowth is also busy with his Chenowth Legacy Lodge, a resort and museum just south of San Felipe in Baja California, where he’s lived for the past 35 years. Four years ago, he acquired a second property and began creating the Chenowth museum. The museum currently displays 12 Chenowth cars. It’s being branded as a Chenowth exploration experience and offers fully customized guided off-road excursions. According to Chenowth, it’s also an opportunity to get the full picture of the history of Chenowth designs up close and personal. It’s worth a detour to Chenowth Legacy Lodge for those planning to attend the 2020 SCORE San Felipe 250. Want to learn more about Lynn Chenowth? A documentary produced by James Masters that will feature the Chenowth family dating back to mid-1800s. Including a great-grandfather Gus that came to the West in the mid-1800s and became a renowned horse-drawn buggy maker. The documentary will give viewers a chronological look at the history of Chenowth products starting in the late 1960s to today. It is due to be released sometime in 2020.

Articles in this issue

Archives of this issue

view archives of SCORE Journal - score-journal-JAN-2020