Animation Cel-ebration
September 8, 2023 posted by Michael Lyons

Saturday Morning “Car”-toon: The 55th Anniversary of “Wacky Races”

Hanna Barbera’s Wacky Races roared down the Saturday morning TV track at the right time.

On the documentary Rearview Mirror: A Look Back at ‘Wacky Races,’ on the show’s DVD, Scott Jeralds, producer with Warner Bros. Animation, discussed what a change in tone the series was when it debuted:

“Pretty much all of the Saturday morning stuff was superhero and action-adventure shows. There were a lot of parents’ groups, I guess, that decided that there was too much violence in television, so, in the year that Wacky Races came out, they went back to basics with slapstick, comedy, more Road Runner, Tom and Jerry type gags.”

Wacky Races was all about outlandish vehicles and eccentric characters embarking on road rallies set against different North American backdrops, all while being pursued by a relentless villain hell-bent on winning the race.

Debuting on September 14, 1968, on CBS, Wacky Races celebrates its 55th anniversary this year. Originally conceived as a game show, and a co-production with Heatter-Quigley Productions (who were behind the popular Hollywood Squares), where contestants would wager on each episode’s race winner, Wacky Races eventually moved away from this concept to an action-comedy Saturday morning show.

There were different races each week, with an eclectic group of racers: The Gruesome Twosome, monsters Tiny and Bela, who race in a car that looks like a haunted house; the Slag Brothers, two cavemen covered in hair, who ride in the Boulder Mobile; The Red Max, a pilot who races in a vehicle that’s a cross between a car and a World War I plane; inventor Pat Pending in his Convert-A-Car, which can transform into different vehicles; Sargeant Blast and Private Meekly, in their tank-like, Army Surplus Special; Lazy Luke and Blubber Bear in their Arkansas Chugabug; the Ant Hill Mob, seven diminutive mobsters in their car, the Bulletproof Bomb; the heroic Peter Perfect in the Turbo Terrific; lumberjack Rufus Ruffcut and his sidekick, Sawtooth, the beaver in the Buzz Wagon and the genteel Southern belle Penelope Pitstop in her car, the Compact Pussycat.

The creatively distinct vehicles and characters were designed by several brilliant artists, including Jerry Eisenberg and Iwao Takamoto. In the DVD documentary, Takamoto recalled that Penelope joined the series after Joe Barbara realized that the show needed female representation in the cast.

Also part of the line-up was Dick Dastardly and his dog, Muttley, in the Mean Machine. In each episode of Wacky Races, Dastardly and Muttley would attempt to win by cheating and setting traps for the other drivers, which would always backfire on them.

The characters would arguably become two of Hanna-Barbera’s most famous villains. “Even when Saturday morning veterans remember nothing else about the Wacky Races, they tend to remember Muttley and his snicker,” authors Timothy Burke and Kevin Burke wrote in their book, Saturday Morning Fever: Growing Up with Cartoon Culture.

Dick Dastardly’s voice was the unmistakable talent of ventriloquist Paul Winchell, with Don Messick providing what would become an iconic snicker for Muttley.

The first issue of the comic book (1969). The Gold Key comics ran seven issues.

They were two of an all-star voice cast in Wacky Races, where the actors provided multiple voices. In addition to Dastardly, Winchell also voiced Clyde, leader of the Ant Hill Mob, and Private Meekly. Messick also voiced Pat Pending, Gravel, Bela, Sawtooth, and Ant Hill Mob member Ring-a-Ding along with Muttley.

There were also other Hanna-Barbera legends and stalwarts: Daws Butler was Rock Slag, Tiny, Red Max, the Sergeant, Peter Perfect, and Rufus Ruffcut, John Stephenson was Lazy Luke, and Blubber Bear and Janet Waldo was Penelope Pitstop.

This lone female of the Wacky Races cast was one of several members to star in a spin-off series. The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, which also co-starred the Ant Hill Mob, debuted in 1969 as a tribute to classic movie serial cliffhangers.

There was also Dastardly and Muttley in their Flying Machines, which also debuted in 1969. In it, the two titular characters are joined by new cast members Klunk and Zilly, as pilots whose goal is to try and stop a carrier pigeon.

The paradigm for Wacky Races was utilized in other Hanna-Barbera shows through the years, such as Yogi’s Space Race in 1978 and a segment of Hanna-Barbera’s 1990 series, Wake, Rattle, and Roll, entitled “Fender Bender 500.”

There was also a pilot for a spin-off series, Wacky Races Forever, produced in 2006 for Cartoon Network (that wasn’t picked up) and a re-boot that debuted on Boomerang in 2017.

But there’s nothing like that original, fast-and-furious, Wacky Races. The opening, with the superb voice of character actor Dave Willock, who served as the show’s narrator, booming over the opening credits: “And now, here they are! The most daredevil group of daffy drivers to ever whirl their wheels in the Wacky Races!,” provided animated excitement for so many.


  • It’s pretty obvious that “Wacky Races” was inspired by the Blake Edwards comedy “The Great Race”, though I’m sure Joe Barbera went to his grave denying it.

    On the other hand, the Ant Hill Mob might have inspired the film “Little Cigars”, a gangster comedy with a cast of former Munchkins.

    I was indifferent to “Wacky Races”. Most of my favourite cartoons were cancelled in 1968: the Jay Ward shows, the Total TV shows, and the Hanna-Barbera action-adventure series all vanished from Saturday mornings, to be replaced by the likes of, well, “Wacky Races”. However, I was far from indifferent to its spin-off series, “Stop the Pigeon”. (I know that’s not the actual title; but if they wanted people to remember it, maybe they should have mentioned it fourteen times in the theme song.) That show was enough to make me curse “Drat! Drat! And double drat!” whenever it came on. The guy who wouldn’t stop interpolating “Br-r-r-r-rp! Pin-n-n-n-ng!” into every utterance really annoyed the hell out of me.

    As for the other spinoff, I remember seeing it one Saturday when there was a total eclipse of the sun over the east coast of the United States, and two of the major networks decided that was a good enough reason to cancel their Saturday morning cartoon lineups in favour of live coverage of this astronomical event. Now, a solar eclipse is an awe-inspiring sight when it’s happening in the sky above you, but it loses a lot of its impact if you’re just seeing it on TV. After a while I got bored and turned to the only channel that was still showing cartoons, and “The Perils of Penelope Pitstop” was on — and the only reason I watched it was that every other channel was showing something you’re literally not supposed to look directly at!

    Of the Hanna-Barbera shows that debuted in 1968, I much preferred “The Adventures of Gulliver” and “The New Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” over “Wacky Races”. I guess I just liked books more than custom cars. Still do.

  • I’d like to see a post explaining the decision to follow Peter Falk’s career so closely with Muttley the dog. What an incredible parallel. Falk starred in The Great Race (obviously an influence for Wacky Races) as the foe’s (Jack Lemmon) grining sidekick. And then, slightly disguised as Mumbly (from Mumbly Cartoon Show fame), Muttley’s take on Columbo. The only thing they left out is the movies with Cassavettes… I’d be interested in seeing a version of “A woman under the influence” starring Muttley and Penelope Pitstop.

    • Interesting connection! 🙂

  • Actress Beverly D’Angelo has stated in interviews that Penelope Pitstop was modeled after her, as she was employed at H-B at the time.
    Regarding the supposed “The Great Race” inspiration, I was amused to read in Keith Scott’s Jay Ward book that Ward and Bill Scott considered Wacky Races to be a rip-off of “Tom Slick”. Even inveterate “borrower” Joe Barbera wouldn’t appropriate George of the Jungle‘s weakest segment.

    • Iwao Takamoto recalled that Joe Barbera asked him to design a female race car driver after meeting with programming executives who said the show needed a female character. Beverly D’Angelo wasn’t employed by the studio until after she graduated from high school in Ohio in 1969.

  • I was in Japan in the late 1990’s and was interested to see that “The Wacky Races” was one of the most popular US animated TV shows there, and that Dick Dastardly was the most popular Hanna-Barbara character.

    • No wonder. It caused the subsequent anime huge success.

    • I visited Japan in 1995 and Muttley was the mascot of a gas station chain.

      I recall reading about the characters’ Japanese name changes, and that Penelope’s named differed between Wacky Races and her spin-off. One of her names was “Milk-chan”.

  • One of my favorite cartoons! Top 10 for sure. I own it on DVD and still enjoy watching it. My kids are now enjoying it as well. I love all the characters and cars and the frantic pace. Once I made a list of who came in 1st, 2nd and 3rd each race to see who won overall. Classic.

  • Nice in-joke with the license plate in the opening. I wonder if the Slag Brothers knew Captain Caveman back in the day? I was 5 when this premiered, and I thought it was the BEST show ever. I made up my own Wacky Races with my brand new Hot Wheels cars.

  • Wacky Races has long been one of my favorite Hanna-Barbera cartoons, and this write-up more than does it justice. My hats off to you, Michael!

    • Thanks Noah!

  • This came out just as I was being distracted by adolescence, and Saturday morning was mostly an annual check-in to survey new shows. I remember thinking the coolest thing was that different racers won each race. Now wonder if kids actually DID make wagers (“Two pop tarts on the monsters.”) before the rerun cycle began. If they were to reboot again, presumably it’s now technically and financially plausible to randomize winners on every broadcast.

    If memory serves, Muttley has a snickering ancestor in “Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear”. Did Messick use it before that?

    Being a youthful silent film geek, I appreciated that the makers of “Perils of Penelope Pitstop” had some familiarity with actual silent serials. A villainous guardian figured in the original “Perils of Pauline”, and masked master criminals were a cliche long before sound. But it wasn’t quite enough for this young purist.

    I feel a need to defend Tom Slick. Being the “weakest” segment on “George of the Jungle” — arguable from week to week — is to still be funnier than three quarters of all the stuff out there.

    • Check out the Precious Pup segments of the old ATOM ANT shows, which is where I first found that trademark Don Messick snigger…. though I’d be very surprised if it hadn’t been used before….the familiarity of HB cartoons probably led to their immense popularity AND their eventual fall from the top of the TV heap…..

    • Messick lent his trademark wheezing snicker to Griswald, a dog that appeared in two episodes of Top Cat, as well as Precious Pupp, who starred in a back segment of the Atom Ant/Secret Squirrel Show.

    • Goes to the Huckleberry Hound cartoons – to the dog Huck had to with,

  • Wacky Races was the last Hanna-Barbera show that I liked. To me, it was all downhill from there.

  • This is my Dick Dastardly, Not the Scoob version.

  • a few years ago, auto maker, Peugeot made a commercial with live action versions of the Wacky Races characters. it is very impressive.

  • Can the reboot have its second season made? It’s all written, the storyboards are all done.

    • That’s incredible!!!

    • yes indeed, the second season actually WAS aired fully on boomerang, BUT season 3 never aired, it’s full animatics for about half the season can be found on vimeo: Such a shame too, but am glad we got we got.

  • Wacky Races is such a great show. The humour and characters are timeless.
    Also a massive THANK YOU for reminding me of Fender Bender 500! I’d had vague memories of it for years and thought I’d imagined it!!!

    • It was among 3 animated segments featured on the syndicated weekday AM live-action show “Wake Rattle And Roll” (renamed “Jump Rattle And Roll” the following season to accomodate afternoon runs in certain markets before the series would later move to The Disney Channel).

  • If I remember correctly, a political gag was snuck into one of the episodes. Dave Willock intro’d Dick Dastardly at the top as the meanest, most conniving opponent (or something to that effect) and then Paul Winchell as Dastardly breaks the 3rd wall and says to the camera, “This is one race I’m not going to lose!”

    In 1968, Richard (Dick) Nixon was running for president.

  • If I remember correctly, the camera department hated this series because of all the panning backgrounds. They installed motors which would automatically pan a background the desired increments for each exposure. I saw this during one of my visits to the studio back then. This might have been the first time motion control was used in animation.

  • I never heard the Gruesome Twosome called anything but Big Gruesome and Little Gruesome. Red Max’s vehicle was the Crimson Haybailer.

  • u know the thing that got me is that most of these toons only lasted 2 years 3 at the most I guess because kids watched them they didn’t want them to get bored

  • I loved this show. when I had my own children I bought the DVD and they liked it too.

  • I had a betting pool going in ninth grade. I had half of Carl Sandberg jr. high involved.

  • From what I gleaned, Wacky Races notched a Nielsen score of 52, which by 1968 was unheard of.

    “Race to Racine” had a great bit of exchange between Dastardly and the narrator, who called him “the Dracula of the drag strip.”
    Dick: “I resent that remark.”
    Narrator: “But do you deny it?”
    Dick: “No…I just resent it!”

  • This is iconic as hell here in Brazil!

  • Loved this cartoon as a kid. I wonder how many other aspiring artists designed their own Wacky Racers for hours on end after every show.

  • Wacky Races was (and still is) absolute fun, especially how each vehicle is designed to suit each of the characters appearance and personalities. I bet the creative team thoroughly enjoyed themselves while working on the show. Also, who could ever forget Paul Winchell as Dick Dastardly and of course Don Messick’s memorable Muttley laugh?

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