Palm Desert, CA — One of Ford’s factory Thunderbolt racers and an early driver of altered-wheelbase Funny Cars, Gaspar “Gas” Ronda, died Oct. 25 at his Palm Desert home. He was 91.
After battling polio in childhood, Ronda’s mother taught him ballroom dance to strengthen his legs. The exercise fostered an interest that would remain with Ronda throughout his life. Following a stint in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he returned to California and soon began working as an instructor for the Arthur Murray School of Dance; later, he’d acquire two Arthur Murray franchises of his own.
Passionate about cars, Ronda purchased a Hudson and soon began testing his skills in the quarter mile. A Buick followed, as did a series of Corvettes, and by the late 1950s he’d sold his dance studios to fund a full-time professional racing career.
Ford sponsorship allowed his career to advance rapidly, and by 1963 Ronda was a member of the automaker’s elite Drag Council, getting first dibs on the company’s hottest products.
The 427-powered Fairlane Thunderbolt was a perfect example, and in 1964 Ronda drove it to an NHRA World Championship. A few years later, he’d switch to altered-wheelbase Funny Cars, and in 1967 collected the AHRA Driver of the Year Award.
In 1969, Ronda switched to floppers, driving his fiberglass-bodied Mustang Mach 1 to a win at the Orange County International Raceway Manufacturers Championships. It would be his last victory behind the wheel; in January 1970, he was critically burned in an engine explosion at Beeline Dragway in Scottsdale, Ariz., and was unable to return to racing.
In 1993, he was presented with an NHRA Lifetime Achievement Award, and in 2016 was inducted to the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame. Though too ill to attend the induction ceremony following a series of strokes in 2014, Ronda did make a public appearance at the 2016 Winternationals in Pomona, Calif., where he was reunited with one of his Mustang floppers as part of the NHRA’s 50th anniversary Funny Car celebration.