Friends call him “Potvin Doug.” And you’ll hear more about him in columns to come. But I introduced him several months back in one titled That and This where I showed one of his color ’50s photos seen here, along with his completely home-built, Chrysler Hemi-powered, Potvin front-blown vintage-style dragster. Scroll back to take a look.
In that short piece I had to apologize for not mentioning his name–Doug Peterson–when I did an extensive article in The Rodder’s Journal No. 65 titled The Unknown Drag Race, featuring dozens of similar black and white photos taken by him at a huge, but very little publicized, mid-Winter drag meet at Riverside Raceway in Dec. ’59 that drew all the best-known dragsters of the time with a $1000 Top Eliminator purse. The problem was that he had sent them to me at Rod & Custom 20 years earlier as small black-and-white prints that I copied with my own camera. But I couldn’t use them in R&C at the time, so I kept my proof sheet and negs, but not his name or any other info.
So when Doug saw the TRJ article, he not only got in touch to remind me who he was, but he included a DVD disc filled with amazing, rich color photos of these same dragsters at that event and many others of the time.
And the way you could tell they were Fuelers then was that they were still smoking the M&H slicks halfway down the track. The Riverside strip was simply the back 1.1-mile straight of the Riverside Raceway road course where they held half and quarter mile drags in the latter ’50s with, as you can see, virtually no amenities. Spectators parked in the dirt and stood on the berm you see.
And when I say Spartan, this is what I mean. In this great shot Doug took just behind the starting line, you see a small timing shack, and that’s it. No grandstands, no guardrails, no snack bar, and just a few wooden outhouses. Spectator stuff was way over to the left by the road course start-finish line. The dragsters got to use a large paved pit area in the middle, then followed the track around turn 9 (behind here) to run.
And though he has some good action shots, like those above, the majority of his pictures are portraits of these drag cars in the pits, such as Ernie Hashim’s fueler from Bakersfield, which was a pioneer in front-mount blowers and wheelie bars. Ernie was a kingpin in the Smokers club that staged the March Meet starting in ’59, and also the West Coast dealer for the new M&H tires. Betcha never knew his car was purple. I didn’t.
But first two things: Doug, who now lives in Lodi, CA, grew up in Arcadia in the San Gabriel Valley, high school class of ’61. A neighbor gave him his used copies of Hot Rod and Drag News, and Doug says “I got interested in ’57 when I read about Cook & Bedwell’s 167 mph record. Then I got really hooked when I went to nearby San Gabriel Raceway with friends and saw the real thing. I went to San Gabe, Lions, Riverside, Pomona, Fontana, and Famoso, either with friends or borrowing my mom’s ’55 Chevy wagon when I got my license. And I always took my camera, which was an old Kodak 35mm that my mom got in the ’40s and gave to me.” My comment is it must have had a good lens, and Doug obviously learned how to use it, taking sharp, well-framed photos. Doug further noted, “1959 was the high point of drag racing. By ’63 dragsters were all starting to look alike and I lost interest in photographing them.”
Second thing: I forgot to ask why, but for some reason Doug shot both B&W and color of most of these cars, which is hard to do if you only have one camera. Making prints from B&W negs is simple and cheap. And mags used mostly B&W photos 25-30 years ago, when Doug sent me the first batch. But for color, he thankfully used Kodachrome slide film, which gives richer color that doesn’t fade or shift, but couldn’t be used to make prints back then. You viewed them on a screen with a slide projector, remember? But fairly recent computer technology allowed Doug to scan these great color shots, download them onto a disc with date, location, and names written underneath each, and send them to me earlier this year. Until then, I had no idea all this great color from ’59-’62 existed. Nearly everything in my files is black and white. The only problem is a good one. This disc has nearly 100 photos on it, like these, so I’m going to have to dole them out in two or three segments. I’m hoping you’ll want to see more of this. Let me know. But for now I’m basically going to show you photos and captions, in chronological order. More to come later.
We’ll start at San Gabriel, like Doug did. This is 3/59 and the colorful B/Roadster is simply identified as “Woodruff.” Info will be brief, but be sure to check backgrounds for period cars and interesting rods, such as the orange Deuce 3-Window.
Speaking of centrifugal blowers, this is Steve Pick’s innovative rail that had a big centrifugal blower of his own design pumping into a 6-2 manifold converted to fuel injection. It ran some wicked times until it blew, which is probably why it’s on the trailer. Remember the Hot Rod magazine blower test I mentioned last time? The Pick-designed Mach 1 blower did the same thing in our “small blower” test, making big power ’til it blew the dyno engine.
So this is 4/59 at San Gabe, and you probably recognize this as the original gold Dode Martin-Jim Nelson Dragmaster, running the chassis of their design with a Potvin-blown smallblock Chevy that flat hauled ass.
What a great photo, with everybody standing on tires to see the track action. There were several of these pointy-nose, mid-engine, ’27 T Modified Roadsters, and this nice red one with a matching ’40 Ford push car is the Keeter-Stewart B/MR. The guy’s jacket simply says Long Beach, and with Joe Mailliard’s familiar name on the side, I’d guess those six carbs top a Hemi.
We’re still at San Gabriel, but it’s now May ’59. And Fred Heistand’s very short, homebuilt rail with a carbureted Olds mill, early Ford wires on the front, and single-groove Inglewood slicks on the rear already looks dated, but nicely done. We like the ’57, ’55, and ’58 Ford pickups, but check that black ’51 Olds hardtop back there with its nose slammed on the ground.
Later in May ’59 we travel out to Riverside Raceway, in the paved pits. This is the photo I showed in my That and This column many months ago, partly because of the cute, uncut, all-steel, Chevy-powered Slicks club Fiat coupe–which Doug ID’s as Woody McCormick’s Cookie Cutter. But more so because that’s Larry Banker’s (of Banker Bros.) black Fordor ’32 sedan in the background, sporting orange wheels.
If this is the same little Crosley sedan I used to see being trailered through my hometown as a kid on its way to Riverside, it had a carbureted Cad in it. Doug says it’s the Bader & Ferreira car, and given the placement of the carbs and its A/A class, I’d say they added a blower. Note the eyeballs are bloodshot. Hey, it’s 1959.
Art Chrisman is my all-time hot rod hero. His new Hustler I dragster was on the Jan. ’59 HRM cover in white paint and bronze scallops, plus a front-mount 6-71 of his own design with one large tube feeding the ports. It exploded, blowing some of the body off and torching the rest. So here he is at Riverside in 5/59 with the bronze-detailed 6-71 on top, a homemade chain drive, a hand-formed aluminum scoop atop the 2-port Hilborn, and a repaired body in bare aluminum, getting the car dialed in with the new set-up. Four months later this is how it won the Smokers’ March Meet in Bakersfield. Note shiny black push truck.
Doug specifies the date as 5/17/59, still at Riverside. And that’s Gary Cagle’s yellow, blown fuel dragster, one of the first to top 180mph. Not to be confused with Clark Cagle (no relation), after a bad crash and other mishaps, Gary became Dean Moon’s one-armed, one-legged, one-eyed dragster and Bonneville driver.
It’s a shame to show this thing on a trailer, but this is the best rare color photo Doug got of it. Of course it’s Jocko Johnson’s sculptured aluminum streamlined dragster (note it’s “rear-engined”) running Chet Herbert’s eight-carbed, roller-cammed, nitro-fed Chrysler Hemi. In the B&W TRJ article I said of it: “But at a Memorial Day meet at Riverside in ’59, after warming up with 8.80s at 175, they tipped the can and driver Jazzy Nelson shocked the drag world with a piston-scorching 8.35 at 178.21, by far the lowest E.T. at the time. The problem was they couldn’t do it consistently.” And that’s why it’s on the trailer.
With the era of Long-Hannah-Cerny-KB/Zeuschel pro-built dragters more than a decade away, you can see that–other than some Scotty Fenn TE 440s and K-88s, and fewer Dragmasters–nearly all of these drag machines of the ’50s and early ’60s had home-brewed chassis, bodies, and usually engines. That meant fuelers to 4-bangers, rails to roadsters. They were all different. Ingenuity in action. And rapid change (as you will see). So this is the Gireth Bros. as of 5/17/59, with an obviously potent big blown fuel Hemi sportin’ weedburner headers, in a rudimentary chassis with a downright crude body. The No. 5 rail you see a few months later, with new body and roll cage, is the same car. Note brand new El Camino push truck.
Dated 5/31/59, this must be the Memorial Day meet at Riverside. Check the background. But also enlarge the photo to try to figure what sort of V-belt drive that is poking through the grille. Doug I.D.s this as the Brissette-Eichenhoffer A/Hot Roadster (meaning a big, probably front-blown engine on nitro), wearing slicks and a low rear gear in the Q.C. for drags. But Bob Brissette was a veteran lakes racer, and my guess is that this lakes-style roadster earned its No. 1 with SCTA points at El Mirage.
This is the Brown-Frank-Weddle A/Gas Dragster in the Riverside pits in 5/59. I’ll talk more about this next time, but while the fuelers were all gravitating to top-mount, 6-71-blown Chrysler Hemis about this time, the Top Gas diggers were still running front blowers of various designs, Olds-Pontiac-Buick-Lincoln engines, or the latest thing–two of these. Even though Doug preferred visiting tracks that ran fuel, don’t forget this was the middle of the NHRA fuel ban (approx. ’57-’63), so Gas dragsters got lots of attention, with cars like Gene Adams’ Albertson Olds and Eddie Hill’s twin Pontiac being models to emulate. So this front-blown, Engle-cammed Olds is a perfect example.
And right on cue, here’s Lefty Mudersbach’s twin-Chevy Top Gas rail. Doug’s note says this is the former Money Olds chassis. Buddy Sampson’s single Olds-powered Gas Dragster won the ’57 NHRA Nationals with a really clumsy full body hiding this light, well-engineered space-tube-frame underneath, built by Lefty Mudersbach. This early lavender version runs six 97s on each engine (how’d you like to change jets on those?), but it was fast. More to come.
This streamlined Dragliner was the first Nelson-Martin car, running a very successful flathead as a C/Dragster. Here at Riverside on 5/17/59 Doug calls it the Nelson-Martin car (and that could be Jim Nelson in the flowered shirt). But I know it became the Rickshaws of Riverside club car, and given the new injected Chevy, lack of hood, and lack of any lettering, this might be its transition period.
Okay, let’s end with some action. You saw Chuck Gireth (and Oliphant) smoking off against Archie Ary in the opening photos. You also saw the Cyr & Hopper car painted orange with solid wheels on the front on 5/17/59. Doug didn’t date this photo, but I’m sure it’s still ’59 at Riverside, obviously a few months later, because the Cyr & Hopper TE 440 is now black, with whitewall slicks and wire wheels up front. And you saw what the Gireth car looked like with its square body on 5/17/59. Yes, it was a period of rapid change. Check the spectators standing on those classic cars back there.
Art’s uncle Jack Chrisman has probably driven more significant and successful dragsters than anybody. We’re not sure why he’s lined up against that tasty raked ’50 Olds, but Doug says it’s 5/59 and Jack’s driving the former Ed Losinski car (see Hot Rod cover, Aug. ’55) as an A/Gas Dragster.
Obviously that’s Jack Chrisman in his blown gas dragster on a single, but what a great impromptu photo–caught on Kodachrome by Doug Peterson. Hey lady, that guy’s running gas. Just wait ’til the Fuelers run.
I hope you enjoy these rare (and good) color drag pics as much as I do. If so, there’s plenty more to come, many even better with some surprises. Or would you rather see early street rods? Lakes racers? Custom cars? Shop tours? Lost rods/garage finds? Stuff from the ’30s. ’70s, ’90s, 2020’s? I like it all, and I have plenty of each. Let me know. Happy to oblige.