Yes, I will admit to having a bit of corncob embedded in a certain portion of my anatomy. Why? I won’t go too deeply into it here. But most of you know that I was an avid and active supporter of Nostalgia Drag Racing from its beginning, participating with a Hemi-powered A/Altered and then a Top Fuel dragster, neither of which I had any desire to drive myself. After a couple of very successful seasons with the dragster, I traded it straight across for what had been the Ike Iacono GMC 6-powered rail, figuring (a) this was a significant piece of drag racing history–certainly the most famous inliner–that needed to be restored and preserved, and (b) it would go slow enough and certainly be safe enough for me to drive myself. So I spent a considerable amount of time meticulously and accurately restoring this car to the way it appeared on the cover and in an unprecedented 5-page photo feature, titled “Mark of a Craftsman,” in the Jan. ’59 issue of Hot Rod magazine. I even added further to some of its noted safety features. The problem? I should have gotten it done much sooner. And Ike was about 5’2″ while I am 6’8″. I was very lucky to alter a couple of minor things just so I could get in the car and operate it. But there was no way I was going to fit under the well-built roll cage hidden under the hand-formed aluminum tail. So I have been rudely thrown out of “Vintage” drag meets at three tracks, and denied entry to a couple others. This includes the once-revered Antique Nationals as well as the 25th Anniversary NHRA Calif. Hot Rod Reunion. The only place I’ve been able to really run the car is at the outlaw 1/8-mile strip at Eagle Field, north of Fresno, and it has no clocks. I think it runs at least as well as it used to, but I’d love to get some times to prove it.
But this really isn’t about that. Only tangentially. It started with my first Hot Rod Gallery book, which had a chapter on “The First Drag Strips,” in which I noted just how bare-bones, unsafe, and downright scary some of the first dragsters were. I’ve reproduced some of those photos here, and then I went digging in my files for more. There were quite a few. So here’s a good sample to help keep you entertained, at least somewhat, as our quarantine continues with renewed vigor.
So let’s start with the car considered the first dragster, Dick Kraft’s “Bug.” To make the first version, seen at Santa Ana in ’50 or ’51, Kraft simply removed the ’23 T body and added a quickly-formed sheetmetal “cowl,” which you might notice in the first photo has no firewall. Those are his feet you can see. And right next to him, that’s the fuel tank (as in nitro). Rear-only mechanical brakes. And no roll bar. But it does have a crude cover over the carb tops, plus an aircraft seat belt. Those seemed to be the only safety rules at the time. In the famous lower photo, you see a well-below-head thin roll bar, but no shirt and definitely no helmet.
Before we get into more dangerous diggers, here’s a look a what preceded them at the nation’s first every-weekend drag strip, Santa Ana, that opened in 1950. These short sprints were a different game from the lakes racing rodders knew. And there was no governing body to make rules, or classes, so Pappy Hart made them up as he went. I really don’t know why several racers added these low, quickie, cardboard, tape, and clear plastic tops to turn roadsters into coupes–or “doodle bugs.” Crude? Yes. Safe? Questionable.
In its third year of weekly operation (Feb. 1, ’53) apparently the only new safety regulation for “rails” was a helmet. Maybe that’s a narrow rollbar behind the young T-shirted driver. But absolutely no body or firewall. And probably a good dose of nitro in the tank. This is scary.
But this is even scarier. The Saugus track was opened on a little-used airstrip northeast of L.A. shortly after Santa Ana by Louie Senter (Ansen Automotive) and Lou Baney. And it was apparently run-what-ya-brung. This is 1953. Neither car has any body. The closer guy has no helmet, and his roll bar looks more like a patio chair. The flexi-pipe headers on the V8 are dragging on the ground. But worst is all the liquid already laid in the near lane, being added to by a stream from the 4-banger. Crowd control? Guard rails? Whaterya talkin ’bout?
Speaking of flex-pipe headers, here’s a good look at the engine in Don Garlits’ first dragster sometime before 1955. Since the car had an abbreviated ’27 T body, it wasn’t technically a “rail.” And though undeniably crude, Big Daddy wasn’t at all ashamed of it, since he had these photos hanging on the wall of his office in Florida, and even built a duplicate–though much nicer–of the original shorter version to show in his museum and drive around.
This is at least ’55. The T body has been replaced by sheetmetal. The carbs are duly covered. And the squarish rollbar would seem to add dubious protection. They could hardly imagine what all was to come after this.
Speaking of what was to come…. Yes, this is what was to become the Iacono dragster in one of its few former incarnations. This photo ran in National Dragster in Nov. 1956, stating that owner/builder/driver Sonny “Valcaen” (Balcaen) had run the blistering time of 136.60 to win the D Roadster class at Santa Ana, then was barely edged by a motorcycle for Top Eliminator. I call this its lawn chair configuration, with the driver hanging out in the breeze behind an iffy rollbar. No body. No firewall.
Rodders like to argue over who had the first rear-engine dragster. There were lots of them. This one, seen at Santa Ana in ’53 uses a ’38 Willys hood to make a nice nose and body around the driver. He has a helmet, and it has a rollbar–but it barely reaches his ears. It also has cable-actuated mechanical rear brakes. The strange part is that it has a stone-stock, single-carb flathead, as if it were a new car, making first-time-out test runs. But why does the single-tube frame and the rest of the chassis look like it was made from metal and other pieces scrounged from an oil field scrap pile? I really wouldn’t call this dragster dangerous, but it certainly lacks “The Mark of a Craftsman.”
Here’s a small one seen at San Diego’s Paradise Mesa in ’53. That looks like a screaming little Crosley engine with a pair of side-draft carbs, hooked to an early Ford driveline. Given its light weight, it must have been quick. And the overall construction looks quite sanitary. But it has no firewall (just a gauge panel), no body whatsoever, and that thin, low rollbar looks like it would fold up in a strong wind. Since there was nowhere else to write its number, they taped a paper plate to the rollbar and wrote it there. The O/D class stands for Open Dragster, and this one gives new meaning to the term “Open.”
Wally Parks had a few slogans for his new NHRA, one being “Innovation in Action.” This rail job seen at Saugus in ’52 exhibits plenty of innovation in adapting a 2-71 GMC blower to the flathead V8, then modifying the blower to mount two 97 carbs on top, with a third on an elbow into the original inlet. While I wouldn’t call this car particularly dangerous or crude, what gets me is that it has a rollbar protecting the skinny radiator, but none at all for the driver.
Back at Santa Ana in early ’53, the driver in the polka dot shirt knew everybody would see it because his dragster has no body to protect him–even though it does have a nose and pan up front. At least they’re wearing helmets, and this one has the first substantial, effective rollbar we’ve seen (unlike his competitor). Remember, most of these cars were running some kind of slicks (i.e., circle track) and heavy loads of nitro…and/or other experimental chemicals.
I found this photo when I was doing a Supercharging book years ago, and I know little about it other than I think this is a Texas track in the early ’50s. The car has a healthy (though unbraced) rollbar, and the driver wears not only a helmet, but also white coveralls like the European Gran Prix drivers. But there’s obviously no body, and no firewall to protect him from that big Cadillac flathead V8, topped with what looks to me like a 6-71 GMC blower topped with two Cad carbs on an oddly offset large plenum. With all that fuel/air mixture–much of it compressed–sitting in front of his face, one good backfire from the 330+ Cad and that driver would be toast.
Ernie Hashim was one of the kingpins of the Smokers of Bakersfield who started the March Meets in ’59. He was also one of the supercharging pioneers, and his first rail, seen at Famoso in the earlier ’50s, is a well-constructed car. It has a body, firewall, hood, and a well-below-his-helmet rollbar. But look where that fuel tank is mounted relative to his body. And, again, that 3-71 blower mounting 4 97 “leakers” on top is like a bomb ready to explode in his face with one good backfire from the flathead V8. I think Ernie escaped injury, but you could ask Don Garlits what that feels like.
Sometimes I surprise myself with what I find in my files. I have absolutely no idea who, where, or exactly when this photo was taken. Apparently early-mid ’50s. The dragster is no construction masterpiece, but it does have a body and even full hood. The driver has helmet, goggles, and overalls. What gets me is the rollbar, which looks like a piece from his kids’ swing set, heated and bent with a torch.
Back at Saugus in late ’52, they still hadn’t coined the term dragster, so they called this wild contraption devised by Bob Rounthwaite a “thingie.” And I’m not saying it’s dangerous. It has a body, firewall, and decent rollbar. Plus innovations like a tubular frame, friction shocks, hairpin radius rods, and the first instance of raising the engine for effective weight transfer to the rear wheels for improved traction–which became common for Gassers and Super Stocks a decade later. Besides the 4-carb flathead V8, he also ran a 5-carb GMC 6, which the NHRA made him cover with a full hood at their first meet at Pomona in ’53.
Obviously built at home in the garage, this thing was at the NHRA Nationals in Oklahoma City in ’58, where I’m hoping it was waiting in the tech line, where I’m further hoping it didn’t pass. I won’t mention the deficiencies in the body and rollbar area. It’s the stack-up on top of that 265 or 283 Chevy that scares me–a 4-71 GMC blower, six 97 carbs, driven by what looks like a bicycle chain with no idler pulley–all somehow bolted on top of the cast-iron factory carburetor manifold. Just stare at this combination for a while and imagine what might go wrong.
I really wish I had a better photo than this fuzz-o-graph of the Warren-Coburn-Crowe roller skate they ran in ’58 at Famoso. If so, you’d see that the fabrication and detail on this car was of such high caliber that it rated a full feature in Hot Rod magazine. Yes it had the requisite rollbar, firewall, and “full” polished aluminum body, but those are the driver’s white pants hanging down there in the breeze a couple of inches from the track, and that’s 459 inches of big Chrysler Hemi right behind his head. Fortunately nothing went wrong, because these “Ridge Route Terrors” went on to build several more longer, safer, and highly successful Top Fuel dragsters.
In going through hundreds of photos and proof sheets in files labeled “drags,” it was readily apparent that there was a significant shift in the safety as well as the overall quality of dragsters right around ’58-’59. This photo was from a batch I bought that were mostly taken in Florida around that time, where NHRA tracks were few and regulations at numerous “unaffiliated” tracks there (and elsewhere) ranged from lax to nearly non-existent. I got no info with the photos, but my guess is that it’s about 1958 and that’s at least 430 inches of Lincoln or other MEL engine under the eight possibly fuel-burning carbs. Why it has bellypans in front, but no body protecting the shirtsleeve driver I have no idea. And talk about head-above-the-rollbar. The thing you can’t see unless you squint is the stream of liquid hitting the track directly below the no. 1 header. Hope he made it.
I figured this would make the perfect parting shot–not that there’s anything perfect on this Bantam-bodied, Olds-powered A/Altered seen in the pits at the NHRA Nats in Detroit in ’59. At first you might think this thing suffered some sort of wreck, but…but…it looks to me like it was just built this way. Everything crooked. I don’t know what the piece on top of the rearend is. Is that the floor bolted to the bottom? And look at the two small tubes welded to the axle housings. They made it that way. They obviously didn’t care.
OK. Next time I promise to be more positive and uplifting. And, as a matter of fact, I am writing this on Thanksgiving Day, 2020. It’s been a rough year. But Anna and I are very thankful to be healthy and happy in our home, as is our immediate family. We sincerely hope you are, too. Further, this column is a bit of a milestone, the 70th one I’ve done so far. Hard to believe. But I want to thank all of you who have been reading them, in growing numbers. Plus I want to thank all who have written–way more than I can personally answer, but I certainly read and appreciate them all.
So here’s a parting idea: If this typically lengthy column today wasn’t enough diversion to ward off some wall-climbing tendencies during this ongoing incarceration, my suggestion is to scroll back through some of the older ones. There’s 70 of ’em. Probably some you’ve never read, or maybe forgotten. And they’re all still there. With plenty more to come. ‘Till then.