The Changing Role Of Backup Girls

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The Changing Role
Leeza Diehl helps to back up a Nitro Funny Car. (Ivan Veldhuizen photo)

It’s difficult to say how many drag-racing fans would have paid much attention to what goes on at the starting line had “Jungle Pam” Hardy not come along in the 1970s as the provocatively dressed but perceptive sidekick to Funny Car ace “Jungle Jim” Liberman.

She added the sizzle to Liberman’s swashbuckling style and elevated the role of backup person. That role became as much of a match-racing show as the cars.

Jack Beckman invited the legendary “Jungle Pam” to Pomona, Calif., in November 2016 — and by then she was a feisty and fun 62 years old — to back up his Infinite Hero Dodge during the NHRA Finals.

She agreed, and he was far giddier about that than clocking a 3.825-second elapsed time that was, at that moment, the second-quickest run in Funny Car history.

As a backup person, Beckman figured, “She probably wasn’t even one of the first 25. She just took it to an art form because she was attractive and she had a unique style of doing it.”

At the Finals in 2016, she still had that completely unique style.

“In fact,” Beckman said, “I had an out-of-body moment as I’m backing up and watching her, and I’m like, ‘She’s iconic. She’s somebody I was enamored with when I was 16 years old, and she’s standing in front of my race car in 2016.’ I had to shake my head and go, ‘OK, better get your game face on.’ She took it seriously. She wasn’t just out there for show. Mind you, she was a show when she was out there, but it was for a very specific reason. And she got it. She got it in 1975, and she got it in 2016.”

Beckman added, “The answer to who was first was 150 different people. Back in the day, simply because they didn’t have seven crew members on a car, that person in front of the car was trying to look behind the car for the best spot. A lot of times, that’s all it was, that backup person and car. There was no crew. But years ago, they went to somebody standing on the starting line to show the exact spot the car needs to be.”

Today, the closest thing drag racing has to “Jungle Pam” are Funny Car backup artists Alice Bode, wife of Bob Bode, and Leeza Diehl.

Alice Bode stuns with her go-go boots, which are color-coordinated with her tasteful outfits, and Diehl, wife of Jeff Diehl, rocks her own trademarked line of Nitro*A*gogo fashions.

But they’re different from “Jungle Pam,” and the vibe and times are different.

“Guiding a nitro Funny Car back to the line is a huge deal,” Leeza Diehl told AmericanCarsAmericanGirls.com. “It’s very important to get correct placement and to do it quickly so not too much heat is put in the clutch.

“It’s not just about a cute girl walking in front of the race car.”