Arnie Karp and the Boston Strangler Funny Car
Northeast Drag News wants to thank a number of people for making this article possible:
Billy Anderson for saving all this information and allowing me to have access to it.
Joanne Simmons McGarvey for generously reviewing and fact checking.
Chris Wakeen, James Morgan and Norman Blake for the use of their photos
by Neil Van Zile
Arnie Karp passed away on July 14, 2021, following complications from a fractured hip caused by a fall in his home in Englewood, Florida. He was 74 years old at the time of his death.
If you have been to New England Dragway any time during the past 50 years, you have probably seen or heard of Arnie Karp and the Boston Strangler Funny Car. While Karp was the driver of that car, it’s impossible to tell the complete story without including a large supporting cast of characters that made the whole thing possible.
Keith Hughes started it all. He attended his first drag race in 1964 at Sanford, Maine and that experience inspired Hughes to build a dragster of his own. He raced the dragster starting in 1966, but the car wasn’t very successful. He quickly sold the dragster and purchased a 1964 Dodge Dart that he called “Witchcraft“. Hughes raced the Dart starting in 1968; he even held the national record in H/Stock with it for a time.
Hughes then sold the Dart and moved to California where he became interested in the burgeoning funny car scene. He soon returned to the Boston area, stopped racing, got married, and opened his own business – an auto repair shop. But drag racing soon had his interest again, and in 1971 he teamed up with Glen Hays as a partner on another dragster.
Hughes had learned about the benefit of fan recognition with “Witchcraft“, and he wanted to ensure that this new car would make people pay attention. The whole horrible saga of Albert DeSalvo was still fresh in the minds of the public, so Hughes took a chance and gave the car a name that was sure to attract attention. The Boston Strangler was born.
In about 1972, Arnie Karp joined the team and quickly proved himself a worthy driver. By 1975, Glen Hays was gone, and Karp and Hughes became equal partners, running the car in C/Dragster in the Comp Eliminator at NHRA events. They did pretty well with the dragster, winning the Dutch Classic in 1974 and the New England Dragway Comp Eliminator points championship three times in a row. They even held the C/Dragster national record (8.26 at 163.63) for a while.
By the end of 1975, Hughes and Karp were thinking of making a change. They had watched another pair of Comp Eliminator racers make the switch from AA/GS to the BB/Funny Car ranks. There was more money and better fan recognition in funny cars than in dragsters. Back in those days, alcohol and injected funny cars ran in Comp Eliminator, so it wasn’t a big leap for them to make the switch.
That other team, Bob Ellison and Rick McGarvey had also had success in Comp Eliminator, becoming New England Dragway champs themselves in 1970. The four racers all lived within four miles of each other and had been friends for a number of years. They decided to join forces and formed Yankee Racing. That began the true heyday of The Boston Strangler Funny Car.
The first Boston Strangler funny car featured a Ford Mustang II body. Its bright yellow paint with red, blue, and white slashes on the sides was instantly recognizable. They had a strong 517 CID Donovan engine, but the chassis it was in was outdated and it simply wasn’t up to the task. Keith Hughes later said that the first year with the funny car, 1976, was a learning year. Successes were few and far between. That winter they ordered a new chassis from S&W Race Cars which made all the difference. On the first pass with the new chassis, the car ran equal to the current national record.
In 1977 the Yankee Racing team took The Boston Strangler Mustang out on the road with Nick Boninfante’s Fuel Funny Car Promotions Circuit, winning six of the 14 races that they attended on that circuit. In the process, they set new track records at three dragstrips. In 1978 they did even better, winning 75% of the match races they competed in and setting track records at six tracks. They won 14 races that year and were runner up at six more.
Now they were having fun.
And the fun continued in 1979 with more track records, a run in the semi-finals at the NHRA U.S. Nationals in Indy, a divisional win at Atco followed up with a win in the Funny Car Nationals race at their home track in Epping the very next day. They ended the season as champions in Nick Boninfante’s Funny Car circuit.
But the decade of the 1980s is the one most fans of The Boston Strangler remember best.
1980 saw the team win Winston World Championship races at Atco and Maple Grove, and they made good at home by winning the Funny Car Nationals at New England Dragway for the second year in a row.
In 1981 they mounted a new Dodge Challenger body and continued their winning ways by qualifying #1 at Englishtown and winning a WWCS race there as well. They also won the regional at Maple Grove and ended up #10 in points.
1982 started out well, with a win against Frank Manzo at the WWCS race Englishtown. But at their next race at Capitol Raceway, the car took a hard left in front of Carl Ruth in the other lane. Ruth’s car tagged the Strangler, causing it to flip on its side. Karp was unhurt, but the body was ruined and the front end had been ripped off the frame. Undeterred, the team stopped at S&W Race Cars on Sunday and dropped the frame off to be repaired. They picked the frame up on Wednesday, hightailed it up to Canada, and raced at Cayuga on Saturday. Even with a runner-up finish against Manzo at the Summernationals, they knew that the car was never going to be the same. The decision was made to build a new car over the winter of 1982-83.
The Boston Strangler team made an unusual choice when it came to having the new car constructed. Rather than go with a big-name chassis builder, they chose to have Chick Brignolo of Dedham, MA build them a new car. Brignolo had built two cars for Al Segrini that had proven to be successful, so they decided to keep it local. A new Challenger body was added, along with their seven-year-old Donovan engine.
The new chassis soon proved its worth, when The Boston Strangler team won their first NHRA National Event, a win against Manzo at the 1983 Molson Grand National at Sanair.
They repeated the Sanair win in 1984 but then ran into a streak of oh-so-close losses at some major races. They lost to Manzo at the Summernats by .002, then to the Bell Boys at New England Dragway by .004, and then lost to Bob Newberry at Maple Grove by a mere .001 of a second. They also failed to qualify at the U.S. Nationals, the first time in nine years that The Boston Strangler had not made the show at an NHRA National Event that they attended.
It was clear to the team that changes needed to be made. One issue that was clear was that the old Donovan engine needed to be replaced. But the strain of the time and travel required to be successful was also an issue. The team decided that this would be a good time to break up the band, and the highly productive nine-year run of the Yankee Racing team of Ellison, McGarvey, Hughes, and Karp ended.
But that was not the end of The Boston Strangler. For 1985, Hughes and Karp put a three-year-old Keith Black Hemi into the three-year-old car and signed a sponsorship deal with Al Cerrone Oldsmobile of South Attleboro, MA. The updated Boston Strangler seemed to be in an upward trajectory, with a runner-up at the WWCS race at Epping. But the parachute failed to deploy at a match race at Reading, PA and they ended up with another destroyed body and a damaged frame. Chick Brignolo was enlisted to make the repairs and the team was able to return to the track in time to qualify #9 at Indy that year. But again, it was time for something new.
For 1986 a new frame was commissioned from Brignolo’s shop, and a new 1986 Oldsmobile Firenza body and the still-healthy Keith Black engine completed the transformation. The combination took Hughes and Karp to the NHRA winner’s circle at the Summernationals at E-Town and the North Star Nationals at Brainerd, and to a runner-up finish at the Springnationals.
By 1987 it was becoming clear that Hughes and Karp would not be able to be competitive in Alcohol Funny Car on their own dime. Cerrone Oldsmobile and the Oldsmobile Division at GM were helping, but a major sponsor would be needed for the Boston Strangler to continue racing. Bill Griffith, a bottler for Pepsi based out of New York, saw Karp behind the wheel of the Boston Strangler at a match race against Frank Manzo in 1984. Over the next few years, Griffith worked on putting a corporate sponsorship package together. The Pepsi Corporation could see that the drag racing demographic fit perfectly with their Mountain Dew brand and so the next chapter of the Boston Strangler saga began. The Mountain Dew logo was added to the hood of the yellow Firenza for the 1987 season and the first half of 1988. Then the car received a complete makeover in the green Mountain Dew brand colors.
The infusion of cash also made a big difference to the team’s fortunes on the track, and Karp took the win light at three IHRA National Events that year, including the Northern and the Fall Nationals. Karp also drove to victory over Bunny Burkett at IHRA Motorcraft/Keystone Summer Nationals at Atco.
The Mountain Dew Cutlass continued to be a dominant force in the TAFC ranks in 1989, but by the end of that season, Pepsi made a decision to switch the Mountain Dew sponsorship money to world wrestling. In 1990 the team emerged with the New Boston Strangler, with major financial support from their business manager, Bob Sweet. The change proved to be the end of Arnie Karp’s and Keith Hughes’ involvement with the car. Sweet would go on to drive the New Boston Strangler for a few years without Karp and Hughes.
Arnie Karp stepped away from drag racing for a while and became involved in commercial sports fishing as the captain of a boat called Silverclean after his own dry-cleaning business in Winthrop, MA.
But in the mid-1990s, a hereditary medical condition that Karp had been diagnosed with nearly 25 years earlier began to make itself noticed. Polycystic kidney disease had killed his mother, and now it was in danger of doing the same to Karp. After years of controlling the condition with dialysis, the problem had progressed to the point where Karp needed to have a kidney transplant. Luckily, a crew member of the Boston Strangler, Pat Murphy, came forward as a match, and in 1998 Karp received the life-saving transplant.
For the next few years, Karp recovered and worked to regain his health. But he didn’t forget the sport that he loved, and in 2002 he attended the Gatornationals. At that event, he got into a discussion with Del and Chuck Worsham about Karp’s desire to get in the cockpit of a nitro funny car. The Worshams thought about it and decided to offer Karp a ride for the 2003 season in NHRA Fuel Funny Car. Karp became the shoe for the Worsham Team’s third funny car, sponsored by Artisan Home Entertainment and their video release of “Terminator 2: Judgement Day“. Karp competed in seven races, but only qualified at four, and only won one round of competition. After crossing the centerline at the October race in Las Vegas, Karp announced his retirement as a funny car driver.
But wait, there’s more.
Karp had one more season in his pocket. Jay Blake, the blind crew chief of the “Follow A Dream” TAFC offered Karp the seat for the 2004 season. Karp and Blake shared their encounters with near-death experiences and they paired up to run the car at a number of events. But, while the fans were happy to see Arnie Karp behind the butterfly wheel of an alcohol funny car again, his age and Blake’s lack of a major sponsor kept the team from any real success. 2004 would prove to be the final season of Arnie Karp’s racing career.
But the fans didn’t forget Arnie Karp and The Boston Strangler Funny Car. And soon Paul Zona of Weymouth, MA, debuted a beautiful tribute car, a recreation of the first Mustang II Boston Strangler. The car was a faithful replica of the car as it had appeared in the mid-1970s, and it soon became a fan favorite at nostalgia funny car events around New England. Karp was usually on hand whenever the car raced to help with the tune-up, and it was clear that the fans and he were happy to see each other.
One of the factors that made The Boston Strangler so popular with the fans at New England Dragway was the friendly rivalry between the Massachusetts-based Strangler team and the Bell Boys, Charlie, and Dick, who hailed from the Nashua, New Hampshire area. That Massachusetts vs. New Hampshire competition just added to the excitement. And no matter who won, the fans were assured that they would see some great side-by-side funny car action.
Many drag racing fans consider the days of the yellow Boston Strangler funny car with Arnie Karp in the driver’s seat as part of the golden age of drag racing in New England. They may be right. All we can say for sure is that with the death of Arnie Karp, New England has lost yet another legendary drag racer, one that we probably won’t see the likes of again.