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BRUCE CROWER
By: Johnny MacDonald

 

For years the elite in drag racing trailered to Chula Vista to get some valued help from innovator Bruce Crower.

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 wouldn’t 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. Crower’s 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 Diego’s Old Town in the 50’s. They eventually parted ways. Crower’s 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 exciting sport.

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 cars.

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 Crower’s name will remain as one of the engineering pioneers of racing.

 

 

JERRY BALTES

 

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 Bedwell

 

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, Joaquin Arnett.

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.t’s 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 fuel cars.

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 rearend.

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 Gene’s 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 Isky’s 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.

 

 

Ted Cyr

 

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 "Cacklefest" career.

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.

 

 

Bill Hopper

 

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 in Pomona.

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 on gas.
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.

 

 

Jack Jones

 

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 today.

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 Beach.

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 seen.

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 All-Star Team.

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 in 2010.

 

 

Jim Nelson

 

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 racers.

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 wedge engine.

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 was born.

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.

 

 

Dode Martin

 

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 Strip.

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 months.

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 to speed.

"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 Hobby Shop."


 

Tommy Allen

 

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 California.

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 races.

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 mph).

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 era.

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 Guasco.

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.


 

Larry Huff

 

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 promoter.

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 California.

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 dragster.

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

 

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 cars."

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 the class.

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 Chevy Camaros.

 

 

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 McDonald

 

Fomer San Diego Union Motorsports Writer. Past president American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasters Assn.

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 Car titles.

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 whirlwind tour.

 

 

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