The East African Safari
In the hazy days of hot rodding lore, Fran Hernandez emerges as a founding figure, a patriarch of speed if you will. He was the renegade who first danced with Nitro, injecting chaos into what would later be deemed the inaugural drag race of order. A scant decade down the line, Fran, fueled by an unquenchable fire, birthed the world’s first flip top funny car. See, Fran was a doer… a man who got shit done.
But the untold saga of Fran’s legacy lies in a chapter obscured by the smoke of office born cigarettes. Little is known of the day he shed his racing leathers for a suit and tie, becoming the ringmaster of the racing circus at Lincoln-Mercury. In the mid-60s, faced with the task of etching his marque onto the racing landscape, Fran cast his gaze upon the 1964 Mercury Comet Caliente.
The Comet, an unassuming contender in the automotive arena, lacked the swagger of its competitors. Yet, Fran, a visionary with a penchant for the audacious, saw potential in its light frame and perceived durability. And so, he hatched a wild plan – turning the Comet into a rally beast. Not just any rally, mind you, but the grandiose East African Safari, a punishing 3,100-mile odyssey through the heart of Africa.
The Safari, baptized in 1953 and sanctified by the FIA in 1957, was the litmus test for man and machine, a crucible of endurance that made other rallies seem like Sunday drives. Fran Hernandez, always one to shoot for the stars, threw down the gauntlet in 1964, unleashing
five six teams armed with the 1964 Mercury Comet. Ray Brock and Bill Stroppe were summoned to join this madcap escapade – both acted as advisors while Ray, of course, opted to pilot a car as well.
Each Comet underwent a metamorphosis, adorned with extra lights, tow hooks, and strategic handles for the co-pilot to morph into human ballast in treacherous terrain. A rollbar, born in the States but reshaped due to protests, added a touch of rebellion. The suspension was fortified, while a hopped up 289-inch small block and three-speed setup were deemed sufficient.
The Safari unfolded as a savage ballet of adversity. Nearly a hundred contenders threw their hats into the ring, but when the dust settled, only 21 finished. Fran’s Mercury Comets, battered and bruised, claimed two spots – one in 18th place and the other defiantly occupying the rear. From a marketing standpoint, it was a debacle, a symphony of failure, but in the brutal realm of the Safari, just finishing was a triumph in itself.
Since that grueling expedition, the specially tuned Comets have become relics of a bygone era, coveted like vintage contraband. While Lincoln-Mercury insists only six teams embarked on this African odyssey, whispers suggest the existence of ten, perhaps more, of these beastly machines were built. Regardless of the tally, at least two still hold FIA passports, their engines humming in sporadic defiance on the leisurely circuits of vintage racing. Fran Hernandez’s gamble might not have been a roaring success on paper, but in the gritty reality of East African mud and mayhem, those Mercury Comets etched their own indelible tale of audacity and survival.