Around 1980, Michael Lightbourn spotted an odd, enclosed car trailer off to the side of a cotton farm on the outskirts of Fabens, Texas. He eventually met the owner, Bob Kimpel, who unlocked the trailer’s door and let Lightbourn peek inside. There, he eyeballed the back of a single-seat, tube-frame race car that stretched 188 inches as it ran toward the trailer’s nose. Kimpel explained this old race car was named “Moonburst” and had been featured in an issue of HOT ROD magazine; it was also spun from famed hot-rodder and racer Dean Moon’s shop—if you somehow don’t know the name, you definitely know the Mooneyes logo. Feeling the sense of awe and wonder that comes with uncovering buried treasure, Lightbourn was eager to buy. Kimpel didn’t want to sell, but that didn’t stop the two from becoming friends, and they kept in contact over the ensuing decades.
Kimpel had purchased Moonburst for $1,200 in “1973 or 1974,” through a Cincinnati, Ohio, classified ad. He wasn’t even aware of the car’s legacy until after the purchase, when the seller said, “Oh by the way, it was featured in some magazine.” At the local library he searched back issues of HOT ROD and finally spotted his car on page 72 of the July 1971 issue. Enthused, he got busy hunting down the original Mr. Ed trailer that Jack MacKay used to transport Moonburst to drag races in the 1970s. The trailer cost more than the car, although not bu much: Kimpel recalls the price was “$1300 or $1500,” which he gladly anted up.
A drag racer himself, Kimpel worked as a heliarc welder at a chassis shop. His original intention was to convert Moonburst to the newer-and-safer rear-engine layout. Lucky for preservationists, he never got around to the job. Renewed interest in these old dragsters, glamorized during cacklefests—events where nitro-burning dragsters from t he “Golden Era of Drag Racing” make their distinctive crackling noises—inspired a curious post on Facebook: Whatever happened to Moonburst? One woman replied to the post, noting her father-in-law owned that very car. When the hot rod crowd found out, someone offered $90,000 for it. On June 3, 2020, for the first time since 1977, Bob Kimpel pulled the car and parts out of the trailer for inspection.
What’s spectacular about Moonburst is the car essentially entered a time capsule when it was sealed inside the Mr. Ed trailer. The Woody Gilmore chassis is in excellent condition and still wears its original paint. The Tom Hanna-crafted aluminum body is all there, and although those pieces have been stripped of paint, the metal is in excellent shape save for a small dent on the nose. Most of the original parts remain except for the blown 392 Chrysler Hemi (drag racers usually keep their engines when they sell a car). But in the 1970s, Bob rounded up a 392 Hemi block, a pair of 6-71 Thompson and Detroit superchargers, and an intake for an early-model Chrysler Hemi.
Yet as the two old friends talked in the presence of an iconic piece of drag-racing machinery, it became obvious Kimpel remained unwilling to sell the car. That’s okay. “Let Bob finish at least one item on his bucket list,” Lightbourn said with a laugh. With any luck, we’ll hear Moonburst cackle again in the near future.