First broadcast from late 1968 to early 1969, Wacky Races was Hanna-Barbera’s answer to films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and The Great Race—an all-star cast of characters mad-dashing and slap-sticking their way from Point A to Point B. In this particular series, structured as a televised race event, the action is narrated by an unnamed announcer who carries a good chunk of the dialogue. The racers range from helpful to downright dirty tricksters, and everything in between. Before we venture any further, let’s take a quick look at the players.
The Slag Brothers: Rock and Gravel Slag are hirsute sibling cavemen who wield wooden clubs and tool about in a boulder on wheels. They have an advantage in that if they wreck their car, they simply beat another rock into shape with their clubs.
The Gruesome Twosome: known only as Big Gruesome and Little Gruesome, this duo is made up of a huge, Frankenstein-esque creature and a smaller vampiric one. Their vehicle appears to be a modified hearse with a belfry attached, which houses a number of ghosts and ghoulies (though their pet dragon is seen most often), making it part car and part haunted house.
Professor Pat Pending: this inventor’s schtick is that his car can transform into multiple forms, and is fully outfitted with wild contraptions of his own devise. Unfortunately, everybody’s car is outfitted with wild contraptions, so there’s really very little here to make him a memorable addition to the roster.
The Red Max: a fighter pilot whose vehicle is part-plane, part-car, and all disappointment. Max’s ride comes with machine guns that fire non-lethal rounds more often than we would like them to.Penelope Pitstop: the prototypical Southern belle, Penelope is typically just as concerned with classical manners and looking good as she is with winning the race.
Sergeant Blast and Private Meekly: this pair of military men drive a tank-Jeep-steamroller hybrid and use surplus Army goods to various effect.
The Ant Hill Mob: lead by Clyde, this group of seven diminutive prohibition era gangsters cruise around in their classic coupe, and put their feet to the concrete Fred Flintstone-style when they need an extra boost of speed.
Lazy Luke and Blubber Bear: an always-napping stereotypical hillbilly and his domesticated pet brown bear, these two drive a jalopy powered by a wood burning stove.
Peter Perfect: sort of the male equivalent to Penelope Pitstop, this handsome and charming gentleman is always trying to make time with his pretty counterpart…when not zooming along in his decidedly phallic automobile.
Rufus Ruffcut and Sawtooth: the blue collar versions of the no-collar hillbilly/bear team mentioned above, Rufus is a burly lumberjack and Sawtooth his pet beaver. They race in a car made of wood and buzzsaws, because what else would a self-respecting lumberjack drive?
Dick Dastardly and Muttley: a melodramatic mustache-twirler and his snickering dog, these two are the villains—and, surprisingly, the stars of the series. Their maniacal schemes to get the upper hand in the race typically backfire on them, but it’s those same schemes that also earn them the most screentime—so even when they lose, they win.
I wasn’t yet born when this show originally aired, but I used to watch rebroadcasts every morning before school when I was a child. As a Monster Kid, I was predisposed to root for the Gruesome Twosome (who came in first place three times, when all is said and done), but I would have been almost as happy if Dick Dastardly and Muttley won—which only happened once, and they were quickly disqualified. Everyone else was far too vanilla for my tastes, especially Peter Perfect. The studio couldn’t even be bothered to make Pat Pending a mad scientist? Talk about a missed opportunity.
Luckily, the enjoyment of Wacky Races is not dependent on who wins and who loses. It’s all about how they get to the finish line. There aren’t so much plots in this series as there are occurrences, but the rapid-fire jokes are almost always amusing and sometimes aimed directly at the budding horror fan. One episode has the racers traveling through Spookane, a ghost town with real ghosts! These specters, haunting the Spookane Bar & Ghoul (naturally), frighten all of the contestants…until the Gruesome Twosome show up and frighten the ghosts away.
Other highlights include a broomstick-riding witch; a giant ape (who takes a liking to Penelope Pitstop in the vein of King Kong); a detour into an abandoned amusement park; Dick Dastardly dressing up as an Abominable Snowman to sabotage his competitors (though Penelope thinks he’s an Adorable Snowman); and Dastardly teaming up with a magical genie whose granted wishes cause more trouble than anything else.
Earlier, I used the term “all-star cast”, which seems fitting but is actually a bit of a misnomer. All of the characters here were brand new when they debuted on the show, but many of them are so archetypal that they feel like old friends, even though we’ve never met them before.
The most obvious example is the triad of Penelope Pitstop, Peter Perfect, and Dick Dastardly—all of whom seem ripped straight from some early melodrama. Or, more accurately, a satire of some early melodrama, like Dudley Do-Right. How easy is it to picture Dastardly tying Penelope to the train tracks, while Peter races a locomotive to save her?
The Ant Hill Gang, with their short stature and tough guy attitudes, are reminiscent of gangster Rocky from the old Bugs Bunny cartoons; and the Gruesome Twosome seem like definite descendants of the Gruesomes, a family of monsters who moved in next door to Fred and Wilma during the fifth season of The Flintstones.
Not only did the characters from Wacky Races draw inspiration from elsewhere, they were also used to draw inspiration from later down the line. The designs for the Slag Brothers were only slightly modified to create Captain Caveman. And Dick Dastardly and Muttley would become practically interchangeable with Dread Baron and Mumbly.
Furthermore, a few of the characters from Wacky Races went on to have shows of their own. The Perils of Penelope Pitstop debuted in 1969 and had Penelope in constant threat of being murdered by The Hooded Claw, who hopes to gain her inheritance. The Ant Hill Mob returned as well, cast as good guys who often had to help Penelope out of a jam.
That same year, Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines debuted, featuring the villainous duo as aviators trying to catch a messenger pigeon that is transporting important secrets. The pair also went on to appear in Yogi’s Treasure Hunt, Fender Bender 500, and Yo Yogi!
The Gruesome Twosome, sadly, never received a return engagement, though I believe it’s high time for their return.
Only 17 episodes of Wacky Races were produced, though each episode contained two different races. With a total running time of about 6.5 hours, the truly dedicated (or, in my case, the truly lazy) could knock out the entire set in one sitting. That’s really not the ideal way to go about it, though, as some of the gags grow a little tiresome during the binge. It’s best to break it up into a few segments at a time. Maybe even bet on the outcome, just to keep things interesting.