By: Johnny MacDonald
For years the elite in drag racing
trailered to Chula Vista to get some valued help from innovator
His reputation was far and wide
as the wrenchman who could develop added speed from any engine.
Starting with the 1956 assistance and guidance he provided the
upstart drag race team Emery Cook and Cliff Bedwell, who immediately
became famous by running the fastest speeds ever in a quarter-mile.
Jerry McLaughlan, a longtime
employee at Crower Cams and Engineering Co. said he was so innovative,
taking on things others wouldnt do. He said he can remember
seeing drivers Don Garlits, Connie Kalitta and others come by
just to see Bruce, "Those were the days for exploration,"
he said. "He (Crower) put a wing on Garlits fuel car.
"He worked with the Crower-glide
clutch and injectors and valve train components. Fuel car guys
would show up out of the blue." You never knew who was going
to pop in just to see him. Crower went about his work quietly
and never bragged about his accomplishments.
In garages at his Jamul home,
he still has a Bonneville streamliner, six stroke engine and
an Indy roadster that represent his accomplishments and explorations.
Crowers credibility was as a man who coaxed a little more
horsepower from an engine.
We first met Crower when he and
partner Dave Schneider had a small cam grinder shop in San Diegos
Old Town in the 50s. They eventually parted ways. Crowers
business mushroomed into a hundred thousand square foot Cam and
Engineering Company with 108 employees. Schneider chose a more
moderate business approach.
Crower had said he originally
moved to San Diego to be a part of Southern California's growing
hot rod enthusiasm.
He experimented in speed tests
on an abandoned World War II airstrip, which became Paradise
Mesa drag strip, one of the very first organized drag strips
in the country.
As a young man recently discharged
from the Air Force, he had joined a fast fraternity in a new
Rules would be adopted for many
classes. In fact, Bruce hustled a Hudson Sedan down the quarter
mile and the speed track at Bonneville. His life has been a never-ending
search for performance.
He served as crew chief of an
Indianapolis race car, powered by a stock block V8 to battle
the dominant Offenhauser Roadsters. Driver Bob Christie qualified
25th and finished 13th.
He tinkered with a six stroke
engine and even designed a streamliner for Bonneville. Crower
wanted to find more speed. What he came up with is a car that
could be the fastest ever 'automobile.' "I began seriously
thinking about it in 1987", said Crower, who worked his
way up to crankshafts, rods and other specialty parts for racing
Crower went to Bonneville Salt
Flats for years, and four years later again set a class speed
record -- A-gas modified roadster -- of 227.4 mph in a Model
T Ford with a Nash engine.
The tools that helped project
him into national prominence have been put away. But Crowers
name will remain as one of the engineering pioneers of racing.
Jerry Baltes begin his drag racing
career at Paradise Mesa, next to the Mexican border in San Diego
in 1951. He started out by driving a 1940 Ford Tudor sedan. Two
years of that and Jerry was ready to move up and built a 1932
Ford five-window coupe which he raced in Gas Class. Needing to
go faster, he chopped the top on the Ford Coupe and moved up
into the Altered Class. In 1955 Jerry took the Ford all the way
to Kansas for the inaugural NHRA Nationals in Great Bend.
The following year saw Jerry
enlist help from Joaquin Arnette of Bean Bandits fame to build
a Flathead Ford powered dragster. He was successful enough to
be a member of the Drag News Top Ten list and continued to race
around the Southern part of California primarily. In 1962, ready
for the "Big Time" Jerry partnered with Red Lathrum
and Bud De Boer to field a fresh Tommy Ivo built AA fuel dragster,
Croshier, Baltes and Lavato.
He match raced and raced in competition
programs at many tracks including Ramona . He was able to reach
the #3 spot on Drag News Top Ten list and in 1964 toured the
car back east and won the 1964 World Series of Drag Racing at
Cordova, IL. besting the top running fuel cars in the country.
He also set speed records at a number of tracks and finished
#2 in the NHRA World Points race. Jerry built a second team,
Croshier, Baltes and Leavitt when they bought a used Tommy Ivo
car that Mickey Thompson had raced and put Bill Leavitt in the
seat. That team car was a regular at Carlsbad and raced at the
Southern California tracks like San Gabriel and Lions.
In 1964 Jerry joined the world
of Automotive Journalists when he became the PR director for
Drag News, the most widely read drag racing publication in the
country. He continued to drive, becoming the "shoe"
for Val LaPorte's dragster in 1965 moved into the seat of the
Bud and Don "Guzler" for 1967. He was at the wheel
of the Guzler in a match race against Dick Lahaie, when he was
involved in a nasty crash and decided to hang up the driving
suit. He did not give up racing, however, and in 1972 entered
into the funny car wars with new partner Tom Woodbridge creating
the "Tom and Jerry" racing team Jerry was subsequently
involved with Bill Leavitt in a car driven by Harlan Thomas and
then they purchased the Bob Banning Dodge funny car and competed
with Bob "Night" Mayer driving. The team was very successful
and was a member of the Coca Cola Cavalcade of stars along with
many other stellar funny car competitors.
Jerry became a successful business
owner and along with his wife of many years, Pat Baltes, lives
in Boydton, Virginia. Staying involved with his roots, nearly
10 years ago, Jerry engaged Tom Hanna, the famed race car body
builder, to create a running recreation of the 1964 version of
Croshier, Baltes and Lovato. Jerry has trailered the car to many
events around the country and will, God Willing and the creek
don't rise, will be at Nitro Revival next year. In 2002 Jerry
was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame,
an endeavor he has supported since it became a reality. Jerry
covered all the bases in drag racing, Owner/driver, then Driver,
then Owner, then spectator and then Owner/Driver again. He's
done it all.
Jess Van Deventer
by Desiree Peters
Jesse was a popular, well-liked
competitor who loved the sport of drag racing, and truly enjoyed
interacting with anyone who shared his passion. His roots in
the sport are deep and he has retained a lifelong interest in
racing. In the Modified Roadster, Jess set records for speed,
points, and time at races throughout the nation. Although he
rose to become one of the leading pioneers of the sport, his
beginnings were modest.
In 1957, Jess' senior year of
high school, he built his first drag car in auto shop class,
a 1934 Ford Coupe. For two years he raced it at Paradise Mesa
Drag Strip. He graduated to a self-built injected "B"
Modified Roadster and used that car to set local records at Long
Beach, Santa Ana and most other California and Arizona drag strips.
In 1960 he won his class setting the record for elapsed time
at the NHRA Nationals in Detroit, Michigan.
The years 1961-63 were great
years for Jessies career. In 1961 he raced all over the Southwest
setting all class speed and elapsed time records. Jessie won
his class at both the NHRA Winternationals at Pomona and the
Nationals in Indianapolis. At the Nationals, Jessie recieved
the Autolite Electric award for the Best Engineered Car, a singular
and distinct honor. In 1962 Jessie was crowned Competition World
Points Champion over all the other classes at the Nationals.
In 1963 Jessie won the Winternationals
with his "B" Modified Roadster and then sold the car
in July of that same year. In August 1964 he built, drove, and
set a new national elapsed time record in a "B" blown
Chevy Dragster owned by Phil Parker of Odessa Texas. In September
1964 he set a low elapsed time record in his class at the NHRA
Nationals in Indianapolis. The dragster was retired shortly after
thereafter and is now on display at the NHRA Wally Parks Motorsports
Museum in Pomona. Jess continued racing after building a new
engine and driving an "AA" Dragster owned by Jack McLenachen.
Unfortunately, Jess' father passed
away in February 1965 and he was instantly responsible for helping
support his mother and two sisters. He increased his part-time
hours in a machine shop to full-time and continued to race locally
for the remainder of the year. He eventually became President
of a successful multi-location auto parts retailer before an
interest in politics sparked a 20 year run serving his community
as City Councilman, among other posts. Jessie served as Port
Commissioner representing National City with the San Diego Unified
Port District from 1992 through 2004. He has served the port
as Commissioner Emeritus.
In 1999 Jessie received the California
Hot Rod Reunion Lifetime Achievement and was honored at the NHRA
California Hot Rod Reunion at Bakersfield. In 2006 he purchased
a 1932 steel full-fendered Ford Roadster and spent the next year
restoring it to mint condition. In August 2007, at the Automotbile
Heritage Days Show in his hometown, National City, (the first
competition he entered) Jessie's Roadster took"Best of Show"
out of a large field of classic machines. Serving on Boards for
the National City Chamber, the Boys and Girls club, and the Public
Art committees for the City of National City and the Port of
San Diego. Jessie remains a constant and valuable force in town.
His free time is spent attending various car shows, traveling
and enjoying his grandchildren.
Emory Cook and Cliff
In about 1956, Scotty Fenn moved
from Oklahoma to the LA area and brought with him a dragster
chassis he had built. Shortly after arriving here he met Lou
Baney who was service manager at Yeakel Cadillac dealership.
Lou had a race car engine from a Roadster sponsored by the dealership.
Lou and Fenn put the Cadillac engine in the dragster chassis,
put the dealership name on it and got Kenny Arnold to drive it.
They won a big AHRA race with the car and that got the attention
of a pair of racers from San Diego. The San Diego guys, Cliff
Bedwell and Emery Cook came to check the car out and bought the
chassis from Fenn who sold it to get seed money for a chassis
business he wanted to start.
Cliff and Emery took that rolling
chassis home and initially put a 4 carbed fuel flathead out of
a roadster, in the dragster chassis. Emery was at various times
the driver of a famous and recod setting rear-engine roadster
owned by Red Henslee and also a Hot Roadster belonging to Ray
Lake that Emery and his 4 fellow "Quints" car club
put their fuel flathead engine in. They ran the flathead engine
in the Fenn built dragster this way a few times and then Emery
borrowed a 6 carbureted fuel 331 Chrysler engine from his brother-in-law,
They raced the car with some
success, at Paradise Mesa and also at some LA area tracks like
Lions. Late in 1956 Bruce Crower built a 354 Chrysler for them
and put one of his 6 carb log intake manifolds on it. Crower
suggested Cliff and Emery contact Ed Iskendarian (Isky) in LA
for a camshaft. As it happened, Isky had just stumbled across
a cam design that added an overlap period to allow the engine
to cool a little from fuel going right through the engine. He
called it the Five Cycle cam. Isky says they got his first cam.
The first time out with the new
engine was at Long Beach in January 1957 and the car ran better
than any car had ever run, starting with speeds of high 150's
and culminating in a speed over 166 mph. This was the fastest
speed ever achieved in a quarter mile and completely debunked
a popular theory that put a limit of about 160 mph by a wheel-driven
vehicle. One of the factors that led to this performance was
that, copying the Henslee Roadsters driveline, Cliff and Emery
used a twin disc clutch and Emery left the Ford transmission
in high gear from the start to the finish. The engine had plenty
of power to keep the narrow slicks spinning and better top speeds
and e.ts were the result.
There was a lot of attention
created and some of it not so good. The promoter of the neighboring
Santa Ana drag strip, C. J. Hart, heard about the times and banned
"fuel" (nitro or alcohol) from his track because he
feared cars would go too fast in this pre-parachute age, to stop
safely. Many other tracks and eventually even NHRA followed with
bans of their own. However, many other tracks, with adequate
shut-down areas and not in lock step with NHRA continued to run
During the months following this
event, the team, now famous, traveled to those nearby tracks
that allowed Nitro and set top speed, and low e.t. records at
most if not all and running up an almost unbroken string of top
eliminator wins. Toward fall, there would be two major non-California
nitro events. The ATAA World Series of Drag Racing in Cordova,
IL and the AHRA Nationals at Great Bend, KS. pitted against the
gasoline only NHRA Nationals on Labor Day weekend. Cliff and
Emery decided to attend these fuel races.
They also rebuilt the chassis,
which had broken in half while being towed on their open trailer.
The rear part of the car was redesigned and the Dog Sled
roll bars were replaced with a single side to side hoop behind
the drivers head and the transmission case was cut off behind
the input shaft bearing removing everything involved with shifting.
A straight through driveshaft connected the output shaft to the
At the Cordova event, they were
the odds on favorite to sweep the event, with the major competition
coming from a rear-engine roadster sponsored by Speed Sport Engineering
and owned by the Lords Car Club from Tucson. That car was basically
a copy of the Henslee rear engine roadster that Emery had driven
a year or two earlier. It was also a direct drive with the rear
of the engine output shaft connected directly to the pinion shaft
eliminating a driveshaft entirely.
There were a few other "fuel"
burners there, a California flathead-powered California car,
sponsored by Genes Brake Shop, driven by John Mr.
Flathead Bradley. Setto Postoian brought a Chrysler powered
car from Detroit and Don Garlits had a Chrysler hemi powered
car from Tampa Florida. Emery and Cliff, in a move they would
soon regret, helped and advised Garlits how to get his act together,
to rework his fuel system to run upper percentages of Nitro instead
of the low percentages he had been running. He went on to beat
Emery and Cliff for Top Eliminator, ultimately losing to Postoian.
The following weekend they went
to Great Bend, Kansas for the AHRA Nationals where they cleaned
up on the field and returned home. While in Kansas, however,
they were approached by a small group of Wichita racers led by
Jim Meyer and Tom Hanna who wanted to buy the car. The transaction
took place a month or so later and the car went to the land of
Oz. Cook and Bedwell split up and Cliff never drag raced again.
A career that lasted only a little over a year but set the drag
racing world on its ear and changed the sport forever.
Emery went on to drive the San
Diego based Cope Brothers top fueler and ended up in the late
1970's building a car similar to the car he and Cliff campaigned.
It was never meant to be either a replica of the original nor
an actual racing "contender" but simply an exercise
in evolution for personal satisfaction. That car is now in the
Don Garlits Drag Racing Museum in Ocala, Florida. The Cook and
Bedwell original car has been recreated by Ray Lake, part of
the original crew, who had Dode Martin built the recreation.
See cacklefest.com/thecars.cookandbedwell. The San Diego team
of Ted Cyr and Bill Hopper stepped in after Cook and Bedwell
retired and ran a car they called Old Blue with support
from and advertising for Crowers U-Fab manifolds and Iskys
5 Cycle Camshaft business and continued the San Diego presence
in top fuel racing. Emery Cook passed away in 1982 and Cliff
Bedwell was able to spend some time with Ray Lake and the recreated
car at the 2014 CHRR, before he passed away in 2016.
But what about the original car,
the one that Fenn brought to California? Well, once in Kansas,
it was campaigned on a local basis for a brief period of time,
often driven by Hanna, who would become arguably the most famous
dragster body fabricators and race car craftsmen of all time.
Eventually the car was replaced with a similar chassis and the
original went onto the scrap heap. But the story doesn't quite
end there. The original had been cut into three pieces and tossed.
A local racer asked the guys if he bought it to put a flathead
in, would they put it back together again. They agreed and the
car changed hands again. This time it was raced for awhile and
then sat for years unused and eventually was stolen out of a
storage barn and lost to time.
Note: Garlits went home from
Cordova and rebuilt his dragster, lowering the engine, removing
the transmission, installing a narrowed Olds rear end, added
a Crower 8 carb set-up with an Isky 5 Cycle cam and stringing
up a set of wire front wheels like the Speed Sport roadster and
configuring it in general like the Cook and Bedwell car. In November
he ran a top speed of 176.40 and 8:89 and opened a new chapter
on top speeds on drag strips.
Before the NHRA cobbled together
enough events to constitute a series, there were only two drag
races of any real significance. One was the U.S. Nationals, which
originated at Great Bend, Kansas before moving to Oklahoma City,
Detroit and, finally, Indianapolis. The other was the U.S. Fuel
and Gas Championships, better known as "The March Meet,"
contested in Bakersfield, Calif.
The only thing one needs to know
about Ted Cyr's driving career is that he won both of those races,
the Nationals at OKC in 1958 and Bakersfield two years later.
His Nationals victory was the
stuff of legend. He and original partner Bill Hopper towed two
cars to Oklahoma: "Old Blue," a dragster they considered
past its prime but, as a proven winner, one they hoped to sell
to an aspiring newcomer, and a brand new, bright orange streamliner
on which they had pinned their hopes for victory.
They entered and qualified both
cars. Cyr would drive one, jump out of it and into the other,
a process he repeated until, to his and Hopper's dismay, the
orange car was eliminated. Not to worry, though. They simply
placed their focus on "Old Blue," resplendent with
crude "For Sale" signs on its cowl and nosepiece, and
Cyr drove it into the winners' circle.
When Drag News magazine published
its first Top 10 list in 1960, Cyr, who a year earlier had become
the first to break the 160 mile-an-hour barrier (161.71 mph),
was No. 2 behind only "Big Daddy" Don Garlits.
Unfortunately, he would never ascend to the top after crashing
heavily later that year and spending three months in a body cast.
Eventually, he had chassis wizard
Scotty Fenn build him a car he called "The Lincoln,"
so-named because of its supercharged Lincoln engine. It was the
car in which he ended his driving career and later began his
Cyr's path to drag racing immortality
was a circuitous one. He grew up in Montana, not exactly a hotbed
of motor sports. Nevertheless, he took auto shop classes in high
school and, upon graduation, went to work at a garage in Butte
before joining the Navy at age 19 as an aircraft mechanic.
Upon discharge from the Navy,
he moved to Escondido where he began his own racing career in
the family sedan before graduating to a roadster and eventually
to a series of dragsters that included the Oldsmobile- powered
"White Rat," the Cyr and Hopper Five-Cycle Special,
which used a blown Chrysler hemi for power, and "The Lincoln."
Along the way, Cyr joined forces
with such notable drivers as Emery Cook, Dick Lechien, and Jim
Ward, racing a wide variety of fuel dragsters.
Although he quit driving in the
'60s, Cyr didn't quit racing. In the early '70s, he partnered
with Flip Schofield in a fuel dragster in which the latter won
several NHRA divisional races as well as the 1972 AHRA Grand
American at West Salem, Ohio.
Even after that venture ended,
Cyr remained involved with cars, both through his businesses
(Escondido Motor Parts and his sons' Engine Parts Warehouse)
and through his restoration of classic cars including two Model
T Fords, a 1940 Graham Hollywood, a 1966 Lincoln Continental
and a 1965 Ford Ranchero.
In recognition of his pioneering
drag racing accomplishments, Cyr was inducted into the International
Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1995.
Active to the end, Cyr succumbed
to complications from heart surgery in 2008 at the age of 79.
Few individuals in the San Diego
drag racing community had a bigger impact on the sport's development
in the 1950s and '60s than did the late Bill Hopper. Not a driver
or a tuner, Hopper instead was a facilitator, one who provided
the resources that made success possible for so many others.
The owner of San Diego Engine
Rebuilders, he was associated with championship teams not only
in traditional drag racing but also in the emerging sport of
sand drag racing in which he briefly partnered with Chuck Neal,
the first driver to break the 2.5 second barrier on dirt.
However, none of Hopper's many
associations proved more successful than the one he enjoyed with
Ted Cyr. The Cyr and Hopper team was one of the most successful
of the era whether the game was Top Fuel or Top Gas.
In 1958, Cyr and Hopper took
two cars to Oklahoma City for the NHRA Nationals, the forerunner
of today's Labor Day U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis. At the time,
it was the only race in the NHRA "series" and, as a
result, the only event of any major significance outside of the
California hotbed from which the sport sprung.
Hopper had high hopes for a newly-finished
Chassis Research entry called the "Orange Car," so
named because of its paint job. However, mechanical problems
sent the team's primary hot rod to the sidelines early, leaving
Cyr to drive "Old Blue," a supposedly "outdated"
car Hopper had hoped to sell during the event.
Those sale plans went awry, however,
when "Old Blue" found its way into the winners' circle
and, ultimately, into the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum
Two years later, Cyr and Hopper
claimed what at the time was considered an even bigger victory
when they won the 1960 U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships at Bakersfield,
Calif., the race commonly called "The March Meet."
With the NHRA enforcing a ban
on nitromethane that extended until 1964, Cyr and Hopper focused
principally on the tracks that, independently, still were running
"fuel races." They set records up and down the California
coast including a disputed 7.960 second effort at Fremont, the
pre-dated the 7.88 by Don Garlits that widely was considered
the first sub-8.00 second fuel dragster run. What wasn't disputed
was the team's 161.71 mph speed in 1959 , the first over 160
Unfortunately, a crash in late 1961 left Cyr with serious injuries
and effectively ended the partnership.
Hopper subsequently hooked up
with Dallas Martensen in a Top Fuel dragster driven by two-time
U.S. Nationals Top Gas champion and fellow San Diegan Jack Jones,
and later with Larry Huff and Tommy "Watchdog" Allen
but, despite some regional success, never was able to duplicate
the success he enjoyed with Cyr.
He retired from racing in the
late 1960s and focused on his engine business until he passed
away in 2001.
There's not a drag racer on the
planet who's been in more winners' circles than San Diego's Jack
Jones. A brilliant driving career notwithstanding, Jones is most
widely known as the driver from whose likeness the distinctive
NHRA winner's trophy, the "Wally," was fashioned.
The 12-pound trophy, which made
its debut in 1969, is an 18-inch tall replica of Jones in driving
gear, standing next to a racing "slick" upon which
he is resting his right hand. Beneath his fingers are a head
sock and gloves. A helmet is tucked under his left arm. The 18-inch,
brass-plated statuette is mounted on a solid walnut base and
it has come to symbolize success at every level of the sport.
Long retired from competition
and now dividing time between his native California and a home
in North Dakota, Jones even has a couple of "Wallys"
of his own, one for winning Top Gas at the 1969 World Finals
at Dallas, Texas, and the other for winning Top Gas at the 1970
U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.
Partnered with Hall of Fame crew
chief Bill Schultz in the Jones/Schultz/Stevens Top Gas dragster,
Jones twice won the "world's biggest drag race" (1968
and 1970), claimed the 1969 NHRA World Championship and was runner-up
for the same title in 1970, the year he lowered the NHRA national
record for the class to 7.14 seconds.
By today's standards, three NHRA
national event wins might seem insignificant. However, when Jones
was in his prime, the NHRA's entire series consisted of just
four races and Top Gas was the equivalent of what Funny Car is
Jones won 25 percent of the NHRA
events contested in both 1968 and 1969 - before the series expanded
to a whopping seven races to start the new decade.
Furthermore, Jones' success transcended
the NHRA's "Big Four" national events and extended
beyond the Top Gas class.
Although he briefly drove a Top
Fuel dragster owned by Dallas Martensen, he was most successful
at the wheel of a series of A/Fuel dragsters at a time when that
particular breed was so popular that it ran in a separate eliminator
called Jr. Fuel at tracks like Lions Drag Strip outside Long
In one stretch, Jones is purported
to have won 18 straight Jr. Fuel events at Lions which, no doubt,
was one of the reasons legendary track operator C.J. "Pappy"
Hart included him in his list of the 12 best drivers he had ever
He also won the Hot Rod Magazine
Championship at Riverside, Calif., four straight years (1966-69),
won the PDA Championship three times and, in 1970, was the Top
Gas driver on the prestigious Car Craft Magazine drag racing
While still racing, Jones hooked
up with Leonard Abbott, the founder of Lenco Transmissions, with
whom he worked on the development of an underdrive transmission
that allowed racers to use a lower rear end ratio to achieve
the same gearing. He remained involved in driveline development
until failing health necessitated a successful heart transplant
Few individuals left their fingerprints
on more aspects of the sport of drag racing than Jim Nelson.
At a time when Wally Parks still
was trying to take the sport beyond its car club roots, Nelson
distinguished himself as a driver, an NHRA official and, with
his brother Tom and partner Dode Martin, as one of the first
to mass produce high performance parts and equipment for other
In drag racing's formative years,
Nelson was active with the San Diego Timing Association before
becoming an NHRA tech inspector and, ultimately, a member of
the NHRA Safety Safari when it embarked on its initial tour.
Nevertheless, it wasn't until
he hooked up with Martin in the creation of Dragmaster Company
in Carlsbad, Calif., that Nelson achieved the success that would
result in his enshrinement as one of the inaugural inductees
into Don Garlits' International Drag Racing Hall of Fame.
Nelson's competitive career included
a Top Eliminator victory at the 1962 Winternationals at Pomona,
Calif., in a Dragmaster Dart, a refined version of the company's
original chassis. Power was provided by a supercharged Dodge
The Dragmaster chassis was the
first mass-produced dragster frame offered to racers as the sport
began to grow in the late 1950s. The first twin-engine car out
of the Carlsbad shop earned "Best Engineered" honors
at the 1957 U.S. Nationals in Oklahoma City. An enhanced version,
the Chevy Two Thing, was "Best Engineered" three years
later at Detroit.
However, the company's biggest
breakthrough came in 1961, the first year the U.S. Nationals
was contested at what today is Lucas Oil Raceway at Indianapolis.
"Sneaky Pete" Robinson, considered one of the most
innovative racers of the era, drove a single engine Dragmaster
chassis into the winners' circle in Top Eliminator - and a legend
After that success, Dragmaster
scarcely could keep up with demand. Mickey Thompson, Danny Ongais,
Jack Chrisman, Dean Moon and Roland Leong were just a few of
the legends who ran the Dragmaster chassis during the time that
the NHRA imposed a ban on nitromethane.
When that restriction was lifted
in 1964, rather than retool for nitromethane, Nelson and Martin
opted out of the dragster business and, until they sold Dragmaster
in 1995, focused on the construction of street rods and on "special
projects" like the three Dodge Coronets they built for Chrysler's
entry into one of the NHRA's first Funny Car classes.
One of the two original Dragmaster
chassis is perpetually on display in the Wally Parks NHRA Drag
Racing Museum at the LA County Fairgrounds.
Although Martin was the company's
fabricator, Nelson is credited with conceptualizing the tube
frame and for developing one of the first primitive parachute
mechanisms. According to his son, Dirk, he never stopped thinking
or interacting with people.
In fact, after Dragmaster sold,
Nelson went to work for Legoland California outside Carlsbad
and twice was named Employee of the Year.
"He was the kind of guy
who couldn't retire," said his son. "He was too much
of a people person."
In 2012, after battling Parkinson's
for several years, Nelson succumbed to pneumonia. He was 84,
active to the end.
In the 1950s, Dode Martin, a
World War II veteran who fought at the Battle of the Bulge, was
working his way back into civilian life as a carpenter at Camp
Pendleton when he heard that cars were racing at Santa Ana Drag
Intrigued, Martin bought a Model
A frame at a wrecking yard near his Fallbrook, Calif. home, pirated
a rear end and transmission from a '36 Ford he had in his barn,
borrowed the engine from his coupe, added a crumpled-up body
he previously had salvaged and called it a race car.
When he arrived at the track,
C.J. "Pappy" Hart, who later would achieve fame as
manager of Lions Drag Strip, didn't know what to call it. "You're
not a Lakester, a roadster or a coupe," Hart said. "I
guess I'll call you a dragster."
Martin's bastardized vehicle
may or may not have been the very first "dragster."
It was, however, the foundation for his later creation, with
partners Jim and Tom Nelson, of Dragmaster Co. which, in the
1950s and early '60s, built dragsters for some of the biggest
names in the sport.
Despite a number of "Best
Engineered" awards and "Sneaky Pete" Robinson's
victory in a Dragmaster chassis at the 1961 U.S. Nationals, Martin
credits NHRA founder Wally Parks for the "Dodge Connection"
that led to Jim Nelson's 1962 Winternationals victory and a subsequent
uptick in the company's business.
In the '60s, Ford and Chevy were
the recognized performance leaders. Dodge wanted to join the
party and, according to Martin, Jack McFarland, the company's
west coast PR rep, approached Parks late in 1961 with a query
as to whom he thought might be able to get Dodge in the hunt.
Parks reportedly steered him
to Dragmaster. The catch was that it was November and McFarland
wanted to have a Dodge-powered dragster ready to run in three
Martin and the Nelsons had to
rent an additional 6,000 square foot building to accommodate
the project. They finished the chassis two weeks before the race
but the engine, a 383 Dodge wedge with a 413 crank, wasn't up
"We could only get it up
to 160 mph in the quarter," Martin said, well off the 175
mph they routinely had achieved with Chevy power. The solution,
suggested by Harvey Crane (of Crane Cams), was that Martin copy
the design of the Chevrolet valve springs. The result was magical.
Nelson beat Tom McEwen in the final round and by the time the
shop opened on Monday "we were getting calls for dragsters
with Dodge motors in them," Martin said. "We were even
building Dodge NASCAR manifolds."
When the NHRA lifted the nitromethane
ban in 1964, rather than changing everything over from gas to
nitro, Martin and Nelson opted out of the dragster business (after
building an estimated 250 chassis) and turned their attention
to the growing interest in street rods.
The company expanded into manufacturing
dragster front ends, aluminum body panels and scatter shields.
It marketed T-bucket roadsters and even built three Dodge Coronets
for exhibition, cars that were forerunners of today's Funny Cars.
After the company sold in 1995,
Martin retreated to his Fallbrook shop where today, at age 90,
he still tinkers with cars under a sign that reads "Dode's
Tommy "The Watchdog"
Allen was one of the brightest young stars to emerge from the
barnstorming era in which drag racing developed its unique personality
as a truly all-American motorsport.
Allen first made a name for himself
when he set an NHRA record in a small block Chevy-powered D/Gasser
but it wasn't until 1963 when he put that same Chevy between
the frame rails of a bracket dragster that he attracted the attention
of fellow San Diegan Larry Huff.
One of the great entrepreneurial
minds of the time, Huff proposed that they swap out the Chevy
engine for a supercharged 392 Chrysler he just happened to have
in his possession. Voila! The combination of big motor, lightweight
dragster and talented driver quickly began to make an impact
at the top levels of the sport.
Nevertheless, Allen may never
have realized his potential - or acquired his nickname, if it
wasn't for the late Bernie Partridge, the original "Voice
of the NHRA" and the association's division director in
As the team of Allen and Huff
was hitting its stride, Partridge hit upon the idea of creating
a Jackpot Series among California's NHRA-sanctioned tracks and
posting a cash bonus to be paid to any driver who won three consecutive
As fate would have it, every
time a driver was in position to take the bonus, there sat Allen
in the other lane. He became so proficient at denying the bonus
to others that Partridge nicknamed him "The Watchdog."
Fittingly, it was Allen who finally
claimed the bonus when on April 2, 1966, he won at Carlsbad Raceway,
adding an exclamation point by becoming the first driver to boost
the official NHRA national record beyond 210 miles per hour (212.76
Later that year, at Irwindale
Raceway, he bumped it up again, this time to 213.76 mph. It was
a remarkable time for Allen and Huff who, in an 18-month period,
won 30 Top Fuel events. It was during that run that chassis guru
Woody Gilmore came calling with an idea for a new dragster design.
What emerged was a car with unique
engine and driver positioning and the longest wheelbase of the
Unfortunately for "The Watchdog,"
his "Uncle Sam" came calling and reluctantly he handed
over the driving assignment in the new "Soapy Sales"
dragster to Steve Carbone who would go on to win the 1969 NHRA
World Finals at Dallas International Motor Speedway.
Back from the Army and driving
for Byron Blair, Allen won the 1970 AHRA World Finals at Bee
Line Dragway in Phoenix but he would retire shortly thereafter,
turning his skills to homebuilding although he still dabbled
in street rods and muscle cars.
That life of leisure was interrupted
in the '90s, however, when Huff came calling one more time, enticing
Allen back into fuel racing with a refurbished "Pure Hell"
fuel altered in which he had partnered with original driver Rich
Although it was basically just
a "fun project" for the trio, it ran well enough that
it raced competitively in several nostalgia fuel altered events.
Ultimately, his rekindled passion
for the sport resulted in a mission to track down and restore
both the original Woody Gilmore "trick car" as well
as the "Soapy Sales" championship car for "cackle"
events, which he did.
There's probably no drag racing
job Larry Huff didn't do in a career spanning five decades. He
was a car owner, a crew member, a crew chief, a driver, a sponsor,
a race track owner, a race track developer and, above all, a
Nevertheless, despite his many
accomplishments, Huff always will be known primarily as the unapologetic
pitchman for Soapy Sales, a line of personal and household cleaners
marketed in the 1970s by Bestline Products Co.
Huff slapped the Soapy Sales
name on Top Fuel dragsters, Funny Cars, Pro Stock Cars, even
a fuel altered, fed them all the best parts and pieces, and then
put the sport's best drivers behind the wheel: Tommy "The
Watchdog" Allen, Steve Carbone, Pat Foster, Richard Tharp,
Dave Uyehara, Bill Dunlap and Dave Beebe among them.
That formula worked exceedingly
well on the drag strip. Unfortunately, Bestline's sales formula
didn't work as well for the Federal Trade Commission, which filed
a lawsuit that effectively shut down the Soapy Sales operation.
Nevertheless, while the legal
wrangling was going on, it was business as usual for Huff, who
never met a bright idea on which he couldn't improve.
His entrepreneurial talent first
manifested itself in the mid-'60s when he partnered with Bill
Hopper and Allen in a Top Fuel dragster that won the NHRA bonus
posted in the "Jackpot Series" as the first to win
three consecutive events.
That led to an alliance with
chassis builder Woody Gilmore in a revolutionary dragster that
was the first to carry the Soapy Sales name. Notably, It was
driven to victory in the NHRA World Finals at Dallas, Texas,
in 1969 by Carbone, who had taken over driving duties when Allen
was drafted into the Army.
Huff later added a "Soapy"
1974 Dodge Demon Funny Car in which Beebe won the 1973 NHRA Springnationals
at Columbus, Ohio and a Soapy Sales Pro Stock Dodge he usually
drove himself and one in which he won the U.S. Fuel and Gas Championships
at Bakersfield, Calif., and the AHRA Grand American event at
Dallas in 1973.
It was during a dispute over
the validity of his competition license that Huff bought two
of California's most iconic racetracks and commenced to turn
things upside down by dropping the NHRA sanction at Orange County
International Raceway in favor accreditation by the rival AHRA.
At the time, he also owned and operated Fremont Dragway in northern
Huff's delight in stirring things
up was short-lived, though, and he soon sold the racetrack properties
to pursue other interests including street rodding and short
track oval racing.
He resurfaced in the early 1990s
as partner with Rich Guasco, whom he had met when the two were
in the Army, in a "new" version of the "Pure Hell"
fuel altered, which he drove in several nostalgia events, and
with Allen, with whom he restored the original Soapy Sales fuel
A promoter to the end, he was
working on "the next big thing" when in March, 2015,
he died unexpectedly at the age of 73. At the time, with friend
Bill Doner as GM, Huff was trying to facilitate the construction
of the new, state-of-the-art London Bridge Raceway Park outside
his new adopted home of Lake Havasu, Ariz.
Dick Lechien never met a race
car he didn't like. Sedans, roadsters, coupes and dragsters,
the talented San Diegan drove them all on the legendary California
tracks on which organized drag racing originated in the 1950s
and '60s: Paradise Mesa, Santa Ana, Ramona, Carlsbad, Colton,
Lions, Riverside and Bakersfield.
Lechien was just 17 in 1956 when
he took his first ride down a drag strip in a 1933 Plymouth coupe.
It was the same car in which he had courted his wife with a few
minor alterations. After gutting the interior, he added a driver's
seat, roll bars and a plywood floor, revved up the six-cylinder
Plymouth engine and called it a race car.
It provided a quarter mile jump
start to a wild ride he probably could not have imagined when
he dropped out of school at 16.
Before he reached his 19th birthday,
Lechien was serving as president of the San Diego Timing Association
but his tenure was cut short when he was drafted into the Army.
Lechien already had proven himself
in a series of coupes and roadsters which likely was the reason
that upon his discharge in 1969 he was presented with a career-changing
opportunity when George Adriance put him in one of his "old
Accelerating to 132 miles per
hour, Lechien was much faster in the car than Adriance himself
so when Adriance commissioned a new Adriance Appliance Top Gas
Dragster from Scotty Fenn's Chassis Research emporium, Lechien
got the ride and drove the car to 173.07 miles per hour at Colton,
unofficially breaking what at the time was the world record for
In 1961, driving a B/Fuel Dragster
for Clark Geffe, Lechien won his class at the U.S. Fuel and Gas
Championships in Bakersfield before making the ultimate move
up to Top Fuel, first driving cars for others before partnering
with Lee Drake in his own Woody Gilmore-built dragster.
Racing primarily at his two favorite
tracks, Carlsbad and Ramona, Lechien was successful enough to
hold down the No. 3 position in the Drag News "Mr. Eliminator"
rankings for almost two years. At Carlsbad, he was a principal
in the track's first Top Fuel race, losing in the final to a
guy who would go on to a successful career in Funny Cars and
Indy Cars: Danny Ongais.
Nevertheless, in 1966, at the
height of their prominence and with the sport growing at a feverish
pace, a familiar problem forced Lechien and Drake to the sidelines.
They simply did not have enough money to continue to race competitively
at the sport's top level.
"Everything we earned went
back into the car," Lechien said. "We were trying to
race Friday, Saturday and Sunday just to make enough money to
race the next weekend."
As a result, he walked away from
the sport and with friend Roland Reed, founded Honda of Lemon
Grove. The success of the motorcycle dealership led to their
founding in 1979 of Maxima Racing Oils in Santee, Calif.
Ironically, business success
allowed Lechien to return to drag racing in 2005. He drove in
nostalgia events for 10 years, taking his last competitive ride
at age 76.
Today, he still follows the sport
through his relationship with reigning NHRA Pro Stock champion
Jason Line, whose KB Racing team uses Maxima products in its
BEAN BANDITS IN PARADISE
by Emmanuel Burgin
Before they became the famous
Bean Bandits and long before their chief car and engine builder
Joaquin Arnett became a National Hot Rod Association Hall of
Fame inductee in 1992, before they won speed awards and hundreds
of trophies, they were young men back from the war picking up
where they had left off, tinkering with the jalopy's, roadsters
and highboys and seeing how fast they could make them go.
These young men would hitch their
cars and haul them out to the dry lakes of Muroc and El Mirage
and if they didn't have the time to make the three hour drive
they would find a back-country road, or an abandoned airfield
on the mesa near the Sweetwater Dam. The Naval Outlying Field,
an old airfield used for carrier landing practice in World War
II would do just fine.
"It was a great time," Bean Bandit Ruben Lovato said.
"Boy, we'd work on the cars and then grab our girls and
head out there and race and just have fun. Everyone helping one
another, no one getting mad, just having a good time."
Around those good times car clubs
formed, some having formed prior to the war and merely reformed;
The Cam Pounders, San Diego Roadsters, The Prowlers, The Oilers.
In 1949, north of Santa Barbara at Goleta Airfield the Whistlers
car club began a more formal racing competition and handed out
trophies and kept times with a stopwatch. A year later C.J. Hart
opened the first commercial drag strip, the Santa Ana Drag Strip
and Arnett and other San Diego racers made their way up the coast
to test themselves against those L.A. boys.
A few months after the Santa
Ana Drag Strip opened Arnett decided to build a purpose-built
dragster, and he and his friends agreed to form a car club and
pool their money at $.50 per week in dues to fund the project.
They called themselves the Bean Bandits, and with Arnett's knack
for building fast cars and his ability to find the proper formula
for nitromethane, it made them tough to beat. It wasn't very
long until future legends in the drag racing world Emery Cook
(Arnetts' brother-in-law), Art Chrisman, Calvin Rice, Lloyd Scott,
Lou Baney, Jim "Jazzy Nelson, would become friendly rivals
of the Bean Bandits.
Then, not to be outdone by the boys in Los Angeles, Co-President
of the Bean Bandits, Mike Nagem approached the land lady of the
old airfield on Paradise Mesa, about the idea of a San Diego
drag strip, and for one dollar per year lease the second commercial
drag strip in America, Paradise Mesa Drag Strip came into existence,
and essentially, in their own backyard the Bean Bandits began
their march into drag racing history, into drag racing folklore.
Footnote on Joaquin Arnett:
His passion for cars started at a young age, and he was driving
by the time he was 13 years old. The money he earned from a paper
route went to buying his own car from a junk yard. He learned
to weld and repair and modify cars at a neighborhood shop. "He
loved to tinker. People have called him a mechanical genius,"
said his daughter, Jackie Arnett Sonka. "He had an aptitude
for it. He was a do-it-yourself guy."
Pat Durant, a longtime friend
and Bandits club member, said Mr. Arnett was the undisputed leader
of the group. "He was an amazing guy. There wasn't anything
he couldn't do," Durant said. "He built his own house.
He built three (racing) streamliners. We were the first to go
130 (mph) and 140 on a drag strip in 1951. Those were records
at the time."
The Bandits group helped establish legal drag racing in the region
at the Paradise Mesa drag strip. Their competition rules became
standard for drag strips nationwide. The group was mostly Latino
but also included Caucasian, Asian and African-American members.
"They relished that here
they were a bunch of renegade kids and they were beating racers
with big sponsors," Arnett Sonka said. "They were touring
all over the country, and they couldn't stay at some hotels because
of their skin color. They experienced a lot of prejudice (but)
my father had a lot of pride in his (Mexican) heritage."
Joaquin Arnett was inducted into the International Drag Racing
Hall of Fame in 1992.
Looking Back by Johnny
Fomer San Diego Union Motorsports
Writer. Past president American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters
Spanning 60 years we've seen
the world's greatest drivers conquer the odds to achieve their
goals. Of all sports personalities they were the best interviews.
Whether in the pits or garage they were willing to share their
experiences. We recall Wally Parks discussing his trip to a Ramona
airfield for car tests to determine measurements for his new
sport. From there, the sport grew with pioneering Santa Ana's
blimp base, Wilmington's Lions strip and National City's Paradise
Mesa. A few years later Parks, now NHRA president, prepared to
tour the country in his pickup to convince civic leaders and
law enforcement people that drag racing was a bonafide sport.
We remember visiting Don Garlits in the Pomona Winternational
pits as he worked on his "Swamp Rat" dragster, ready
to boost his ET and speed.
We recall sitting on the Indianapolis
500 pit wall with a dejected Andy Granatelli and his brothers
when their radical turbine wheezed to a halt with victory only
four laps away, beaten by a broken $9 part. There was Carroll
Shelby, attired in striped overalls, winning sports car races
and Phil Hill collecting a Torrey Pines feature before he won
the world title a few years later. Or Stirling Moss winning a
Formula One race at Riverside International Raceway, on a course
he said had two straightaways and a few wiggles. Records are
made to be broken but there are three that might be out of reach.
That would be Richard Petty's 200 NASCAR victories, car owner
Roger Penske's 15 Indy 500 triumphs and John Force's 16 Funny
The names of the greatest cross
your mind. There was versatile Mario Andretti who claimed victories
at Indy and Daytona and then won the Formula One title Or Dan
Gurney, who won four straight NASCAR races with the Wood Brothers
prepared stock car at Riverside. We watched Parnelli Jones drive
his Bronco to victory at Las Vegas' Mint 400 while flying in
Mickey Thompson's plane over the course. So many others cross
the mind, like Jimmie Johnson, A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, motorcycling
Joe Leonard, and Ironman Ivan Stewart whose solo trips beat them
all in the Baja 1,000. Those early days were questionable when
drivers took chances on short tracks, makeshift road courses
and abandoned airstrips. But sanctioning leaders improved conditions
and the stadiums swelled with fans.
This reporter has enjoyed this