Features

Fan Fotos: Beeline Dragway, 1970Friday, March 27, 2015
Posted by: Phil Burgess

I’m off this week to Charlotte for the NHRA Four-Wide Nationals, and the column that I had planned didn’t pan out. I’ve been holding on to the photos below for just such an occasion, so I made a beeline for them to share with you this weekend.

They were sent to me by Chris Muhli, and they show good ol’ Beeline Dragway in 1970. Richard Brereton, a friend of Chris’, took the photos, many of which were in pretty rough shape – age spots, wrinkles, ink bleed-through from a rubber stamp, etc. – but I used Photoshop to clean up a number of them to publishable quality. The work was worth it because, as Chris wrote in his email, “They aren’t the best quality, but they still show some neat details of how it was back then. … I thought you might find them interesting.”

As you’ve seen throughout the years, I love these old shoebox/scrapbook finds because they’re clearly shot by a fan and have the ability to transport you back into the photographer’s shoes and give you that unfiltered look at the era. There are a lot of pit shots in his collection, and I think I speak for a lot of us who went to the drags back in the day that half of the fun of going was that first trip through the pits to see who was there and what they had brought. These photos do that for me.

Before I saw my first Funny Car, I built a lot of plastic models, and I always remember how those chassis looked, with the “tray” of tin extended outside the roll cage, as exemplified in this shot of Gene Snow’s Funny Car. Love the header scorch marks on the body. Snow was a killer on the NHRA and AHRA trails in the early 1970s.
“Big Mike” Burkhart’s pit was crammed with three Funny Cars, his Nova and two Camaros. Burkhart drove and had a series of other drivers wheeling his cars, including my old pal Mart Higginbotham, Charlie Therwanger, and Paul Gordon.
Another great look under the skin, this time of Roland Leong’s Hawaiian Charger, which won the NHRA Winternationals that year with Larry Reyes driving. Their Pomona victory was a huge turn of fortunes from the 1968 event, when their new Charger took flight in the lights, but by this time late in the year Pat Foster had taken over the controls..
How about this gem? I’m pretty sure that’s Ed McCulloch warming up his car. Check out the tin that surrounds the driver cockpit. Pretty cool.
And here’s “the Ace” on the track with the Whipple & McCulloch Barracuda, which replaced the Duster they lost to fire earlier in the year. The photo also gives you some kind of idea of the way the place looked. Most photos you see are shot from the other side of the track.
Another fine detail shot. I’m going to go out on a limb (again) and say that, based on the paint color and decal arrangement, this is Tom McEwen's Duster.
Here's “the Snake’s” Hot Wheels Barracuda getting backed up from a burnout. Note that there’s no guardrail lining the track on the left lane.
The slingshot of recent Insider profile subject “Kansas John” Wiebe sat ready in the pits. Note Don Prudhomme’s iconic Hot Wheels hauler in the background.
Here’s Delmar Hines’ Bantam-bodied, Missouri-based Die Hard fuel altered, looking mean and ready on the trailer.
The 1970 season was the first for Pro Stock. Above is the Herb McCandless-driven Sox & Martin Duster, and below is Butch Leal’s California Flash Camaro, his last non-Mopar for a long time.

 

Here’s Tommy Maras’ unique homebuilt Chevelle wheelstander, appropriately dubbed Moonshot.


Thanks to Chris for sharing these photos and giving us all a little trip back in time, 45 years into the past.
 

'Nitro Nellie' GoinsFriday, March 20, 2015
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Nellie Goins wasn’t the first female to ever strap herself into a supercharged, nitro-burning Funny Car – pioneers like Paula Murphy, Della Woods, and Shirley Muldowney all preceded her – nor the first African-American racer to try their hand at the volatile machines – Malcom Durham and his protégés, Lee Jones and Western Bunns, all were there before her – but hers is a story that transcends firsts, let alone gender and race.

The fact that she was both female and African American in a time when the sport, and even the world, was not always kind to either is not even the takeaway from the story of her brief time in the sport. I’d long been aware of “Nitro Nellie,” but it wasn’t until last weekend’s Amalie Motor Oil NHRA Gatornationals that I got a chance to spend some time with her. She was there, along with her beautifully restored Mustang Funny Car, as part of the event’s Hot Rod Junction and took part in autograph sessions and chatted with fans, some of who knew of her and some just learning. She got to sit next to legendary quarter-mile Don Garlits and met Antron Brown. It was quite a weekend.

Now 75, Nellie is just beginning to get the accolades of her long-ended career, including being honored late last year by the East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame, and I was just as eager to see that she got due respect for her efforts in the sport. I had no idea of the story of family love and devotion that would unfold in our subsequent phone calls.

Nellie was just a teenager in high school in Indiana when she met the man who would change her life, Otis, a talented offensive guard on their school’s football team. He loved sports and cars, and they married not long after. She was just 16, and he recently graduated and headed into the service.

The two built a life together in Gary, Ind., and started a family that by the late 1960s had grown to four children. He toiled at U.S. Steel and she at the Joliet Army munitions plant in Illinois, where she worked her way up to building supervisor at the plant that produced 105 mm howitzer shells and other armament during the Vietnam War.

Through it all, Otis never forgot his passion for cars, and with fabled U.S. 30 Dragway practically in their backyard, it was only natural that the dragstrip would be a place for him to express that desire. And when Otis dreamed, he always dreamed big, and he wanted a Funny Car.

So the duo scrimped and saved, often working double shifts at their respective jobs. For Nellie, that meant 60-mile long drives to and from work – and one time getting stranded on the highway in a snowstorm for a day and a half, taking refuge with 95 others inside a tiny gas station – and doing without a lot of life’s luxuries one might want.

“We had a rough time getting started with money in general because I was only 16, but he always said we had to put money aside, no matter how little, until it finally got to the point there was enough to start something,” she recalled. “As the song says, ‘It was a long time comin.' "

The end result of all of that hard work was an injected-on-alcohol ’68 Barracuda that Otis dubbed the Conqueror. Otis was going to drive the car himself, but he suffered from diabetes and was not able to pass the physical. So Nellie did the only thing she could think of to salve his broken heart and keep the dream alive. She offered to drive it.

“Drag racing was not my first passion, but I did it for my husband and my family,” she admits. “I always believed that if a woman kept her husband happy, everything would be beautiful. This was the family dream.”

She also admits that she was unprepared for what she had signed up for.

“I had no respect at all for the car the first time I got in it,” she recalls. “We took the car to an abandoned airstrip near where we lived, and since neither of us had ever driven one of these cars, we didn’t know a whole lot about what to do. I was so nonchalant and relaxed that when I stood on the gas, a half-second later my head snapped back and I realized this wasn’t your grandma’s car. I found that respect pretty quickly.”

(Above) Otis and Nellie's first Funny Car was this Dodge Charger. A Challenger replaced it, but the body was damaged by a tire incident (below).

After a year of getting their feet wet on the various Midwest match race alcohol circuits, Otis decided to convert the car to injected nitro. According to Nellie, he was never shy about asking for help, even going as far as to approach the likes of Don Garlits and Don Prudhomme for advice, and he found an expert helping hand in former U.S. Nationals championship tuner Ken Hirata, who lived in Lowell, Ind., just 30 miles from Gary.

“Kenny became my husband’s mentor,” she remembers. “Whenever we had a problem we couldn’t figure out, we’d call on good ol’ Kenny, and he’d come down to help us. One of my funniest stories about Kenny was the time he drove down to help us get the car ready for a race one Sunday. Where we lived, there was a church on the other side of the alley from our garage, and catty-corner from us was another church, and across the street was another church. Roland Leong was staying with Kenny that weekend, so he came down, too. When we finally fired it up, it was right during the middle of church service. You have no idea how many cops and preachers showed up.”

The Goins' four children were at their feet at every event, the youngest around five, the oldest 12, and served as pit crew along with help from one of Otis’ friends and one of Nellie’s co-workers at the munitions plant. “They didn’t know much, but they were good at taking orders, and Mr. Goins was good at giving orders,” she said with a laugh.

“The kids were our pit crew; they were well-behaved because they were strictly raised, and they worked hard. It gets cold in Gary, Ind., in the winter, and the kids would be out there with us in the garage laying on the cold pavement, working on the car to get it ready for the next spring.”

Drag racing in the 1960s was not an especially welcoming environment to women, and race relations then are not quite what they are today, but Nellie says that they never experienced any troubles on either front.

“No one ever mistreated us because of our race,” she said. “In fact, we were pretty well ignored. We didn’t have the big money or big sponsor, and we certainly didn’t have time to socialize. We had a few fans, but because it was all business, nose to the grindstone to get the car ready, we didn’t have time to chat with them. We didn’t want them to think we were snobbish; we just didn’t have time to talk to them. We were just trying to hold it together.”

Nellie and Otis eventually traded the '68 Barracuda body in for a new '70 Challenger body, but their beautiful new treasure was heavily damaged on one of their first runs when the tire reached out and grabbed the right side of the body, tearing it off below the window.

“We were at U.S. 30, and we didn’t figure on the tire growth, and when I took off, I looked over and there was nothing but daylight on that side,” she said. “It was clear we were strictly amateurs.”

 
(Above) Otis and Nellie with their new Mustang, which made its debut, sans lettering, in August 1971 (right).

It was during this time that the Goins team received a shot of recognition in Ebony magazine. At Otis’ urging, Nellie had written to the magazine, providing them with a detailed story of their efforts. They rejected her article but decided instead to send a reporter and photographer to accompany them at a match race at Tri-State Raceway in Ohio. The resulting story spanned five pages and ran in the November 1971 issue, and she later also was featured in Ebony Jr., but the hopes of the articles attracting a sponsorship soon faded. “We never were able to get a sponsor of any kind,” she laments. “I think the most we ever got was spark plugs.”

Despite their steep learning curve, the goal was the AA/FC ranks of supercharged nitro, so in early 1970, they commissioned chassis builder Lee Austin to build them a new car, which they cloaked with a Fiberglass Ltd. ’71 Mach 1 Mustang body. The car debuted Aug. 29, 1971, at U.S. 30 in injected nitro trim and later was converted to full-blown nitroburner. The car was capable of running in the low sevens at speeds approaching 215 mph.

The dream ride came to an end one weekend a few years later at Bristol Dragway. The right front tire got off the track, damaging both the chassis and the body. Although Otis ordered a new Monza shell for the car, his health had begun to decline as the result of his diabetes, and the team could no longer afford to race, so the car was parked and sat in their garage for almost three decades.

“Even though he was sick and bedridden, he would still be going through his National Dragster and other car magazines ordering parts,” she remembers. “He always dreamed of getting the car back out.”

Otis passed away in July 2001, and a few years later, Nellie finally parted with the car. The first owner, Sam Ballen, kept it for a few years, then sold it to Rick Lucas, who wanted to do – with Nellie’s blessing and cooperation – a 100 percent accurate restoration of the car, which was showcased last weekend in the Hot Rod Junction at Auto-Plus Raceway at Gainesville.

“Rick was so dedicated to getting it right,” she said, almost in awe. “He calls me before he does anything and checks to see if the way he has it is the same as the original. Having the car at the Gatornationals was the greatest thing that could ever happen. Otis has been gone 14 years, but I know that he saw it.” You can see photos of the restoration at http://www.conquerorracing.com/current.html.

The Gatornationals was a treat for Nellie in so many other ways. She was able to reconnect with Hirata’s wife, Chiyo, for the first time since the 1970s and with his son, David, who was there to tune on Mia Tedesco’s Top Alcohol Dragster. And she got to meet Brown, who made history in 2012 as NHRA’s first African-American Pro champ and, like the rest of us, fell in love with him.


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Nellie was thrilled to meet Antron Brown in the pits in Gainesville.
 

“He’s so sweet; he is the nicest guy,” she raved. “He’s already married so I can’t get him to marry my daughter, but I would consider adopting him and his whole family. He welcomed me like he’d known me his whole life and introduced me to the crowd [of fans] around his trailer. He took me inside his trailer and opened a cabinet and there were 16 pair of brand-new heads; what we would have given to have two extra pair of brand-new heads back then."

She also got to sit next to Garlits during the autograph session and was thrilled to know that he knew who she was. “He is drag racing; anyone who knows anything about drag racing knows Don Garlits,” she said. “He was a whole different person than I knew of when we were racing. He’s a very interesting man, and he just kept talking to me, and he had no idea how much I was enjoying that and getting to know him.”

The Gatornationals followed her East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame honors – her kids, the youngest of whom is now 47, and her sister all flew in from various parts of the country to attend that ceremony – and she still can’t believe she’s remembered all these years later.

“I cannot believe this; it’s all such a whirlwind,” she said. “It blows me away. I was so shocked I almost turned down [the Hall of Fame] because I never broke any records or anything and didn’t feel worthy of all of this praise, but my daughter told me, ‘It’s not about all of that; you opened the door,’ and I realized that she was right, because we were out there fighting and trying. The most common thing I heard from fans in Gainesville was ‘Thank you for what you did for the sport,’ which makes me feel good. There is such a thing as getting your roses before you die.”

In her Hall of Fame acceptance speech, Nellie spoke only briefly, but poignantly. Her key remark being one that well suits her story: “Remember it is not just your ability to do something but your availability to get out there and try. Live your dreams."
 

Fan Fotos: 1965 March MeetFriday, March 13, 2015
Posted by: Phil Burgess

Last weekend, racers descended on Bakersfield for the 58th running of the March Meet, which now is part of NHRA’s Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series but for decades was known as one of the great fuel-racing events on the calendar.

In 1959, the Smokers Car Club of Bakersfield created what it called an East vs. West challenge and paid Don Garlits to make his first trek west to prove that the incredible numbers he had been laying down back East were legitimate and that he was the real deal. Garlits had a less than memorable outing, and a Bakersfield win eluded him until 1965, when he had a monster weekend.

Fifty years later, into my email Inbox comes a wonderful collection of rare color photos from that event, sent by column reader Charles Milikin Jr., of Oakdale, Conn., who as a 21-year-old made the Garlits-like cross-country trek to the Valhalla of nitro racing.

“I was a drag racing fan and amateur photographer from Connecticut and loved reading about all the great cars on the West Coast In the pages of Drag News and National Dragster,” he explained. “My cousin and I planned to go to Bakersfield and also visit one of his friends that lived in El Cajon when his family moved there (his dad was in the Navy at that time). So we drove cross-country in my '63 Chevy Impala and had a wonderful experience. We took turns driving and went nonstop, traveling the old Route 66. It was fueler heaven for a reason, and I have great memories from a wonderful period of drag racing. I somehow managed not to throw out some of the negatives from way back then. These were all from behind the fence. I was fortunate to have a telephoto lens with me."

Don Garlits has often called it his "greatest win," which is really saying something considering the many huge victories he scored in his career. Here “Big Daddy” shared the winning moment with his daughters, Gay Lynn (wearing his face mask) and Donna.

Garlits, runner-up the previous year to Connie Kalitta, brought three cars out West: his own Swamp Rat VI-B, with which he had won the Nationals the year before; Swamp Rat 8, driven by Connie Swingle, which featured a rear wild torsion bar and was fitted with the new 426 Hemi; and the Garlits Chassis Special (a near clone of SR VI), driven by “Starvin’ Marvin” Schwartz.

Garlits won all six rounds of Saturday’s 64-car show; Swingle and Schwartz were beaten early. The winner of the Saturday show was scheduled to face the winner of Sunday’s 32-car field. Swingle didn’t make the quick 32 cut, but Schwartz did despite having problems with the engine. Garlits was on hand to watch, but Schwartz asked Garlits to drive his car in the first round so he could hear it run “for tuning purposes.” Garlits won his first-round race, so Schwartz let him drive again, and he won again. Three rounds later, Garlits had also vanquished the 32-car field.

Seeing as how he couldn’t race himself in the Saturday vs, Sunday overall winner final, Schwartz hopped back into the car. They flipped for lane choice; Garlits won and picked the right lane because the left had recently been oiled. Schwartz had other ideas, though, and after the push-start zoomed right into the right lane ahead of Garlits, who surrendered the lane to his good friend, then beat him anyway with an 8.10 at 205 mph yet was none-too-pleased with his good friend. The victory competed Garlits’ quest to win all of the big three events of that era (the Nationals, Winternationals, and March Meet).

I’m not sure if this is Garlits or Marvin Schwartz in the Garlits Chassis Special “shop car.” What I do know is that this car was later shortened and became the chassis for Swamp Rat IX, the Roadster Dart, one of the few Swamp Rats that wasn’t a Top Fuel dragster.

 Swingle went on to take runner-up honors behind James Warren in Sunday’s 16-car consolation event (some say that Swingle won the controversial, smoke-filled final), making for an impressive weekend for the Garlits team.

The rest of Milikin’s photos help set the mood for the time. I don’t have a lot of information on most of them beyond what Milikin provided, but I’m sure you’ll enjoy them just the same.

Fresh off of winning the Winternationals, here’s Don Prudhomme in Roland Leong’s Hawaiian. Not long after the March Meet, they headed back East on tour and became household names before the year was out after also winning the Nationals.
Most fans know Bill Leavitt for his long line of Quickie Two Funny Cars, but before he raced floppers, he was into Top Fuel with this Tommy Ivo-built dragster.
Oregon’s Cordy Jensen hiked the front end in the Bev's Steak House Top Fueler, which was sponsored by the family business. Jensen became a very successful restaurateur with a stake in more than 90 restaurants.
Chuck Hepler’s Fugitive, which made the long tow out West from Champaign, Ill.
The original Winkle-Trapp-Fuller Magi-car. I’m not sure who was driving it at this event, but my money is on Jeep Hampshire.
The A&B Speed Shop injected Chevy of Bernie Regals and Ade Kynff in the near-deserted Famoso pits. The duo made the trip to California from Somerville, Mass., in early 1965 and raced at Lions and other tracks.
Unknown Jr. Fueler warming up in the pits
Dave Beebe lit the hides in the Beebe Bros./JA Speed Center Chevy-powered ‘32 Bantam fuel altered.
West Coast Gasser legend Jack “the Bear” Coonrod was partners on this bright yellow Willys – dubbed the Kamakazi Koup – with Wayne Harry.

 
Thanks again to Charles for sharing these great pics. I see a lot of great old photos, but a lot of them are black and white, so to have color photos, and from such a memorable event, is a real treat. I hope you enjoyed them.

Early rear-engine ironFriday, March 06, 2015
Posted by: Phil Burgess
(Above) "Ollie" Morris' back-motor Smokin' White Owl debuted in 1954 and tore up Southern California strips. (Below) Morris, right, and sponsor Harvey Malcomson, of Harvey’s Auto Glass, worked on the car's flathead powerplant (inset).
The car got its nickname from its cylindrical shape and white paint, which reminded some of White Owl cigars, though he was never sponsored by the company.

Although the topic the last few weeks has been the 1970-72 transition from front-engine slingshot to rear-engine dragster in Top Fuel, I got quite a few inquiries and suggestions about other rear-engine cars that predated those discussed in the last two columns.

You don’t have to look through too many Hot Rod magazines from the 1954-55 era to see plenty of dragsters with the engine behind the driver. I even spied future Indy car hero A.J. Foyt at the wheel of Ray Harrelson’s rear-engine belly tanker dragster, which set top speed (121.73 mph) at the Safety Safari’s stop in El Paso, Texas, in the summer of 1955, and just from the photos I’ve perused, at least a half-dozen were at the first Nationals in Great Bend, Kan., in 1955, including late-round finisher Harrelson’s Motor Reco Special, the Green Monster #5 of Walt and Art Arfons, and one of the most famous early rear-engine cars, the Smokin’ White Owl of George “Ollie” Morris, a car that’s truly worthy of our attention here.

Morris, a Navy veteran, spent his first years after World War II track racing and spent way too much time fixing bent chassis and tweaked body parts from numerous collisions, so when the famed Southern California dragstrip opened in Santa Ana in 1950, Morris took to the straight-line course, first with partner Harold Dawson with a hot-running B/Roadster that went 128 mph. To save weight, they removed the firewall, which led to the occasional oil bath. It didn’t take long for him to get that mess behind him – literally.

In 1953, Morris and Bruce Terry built the Smokin’ White Owl in his backyard, using '29 Ford framerails from his roadster, then added a hand-formed aluminum body that was ingeniously designed using a bathtub as an ad hoc wind tunnel. He’d make up scale models of his body design and push them through the water using a stick and observe the turbulence.

The car’s cylindrical body and white paint scheme reminded people of the White Owl brand of cigars and led to the car’s nickname, but he was never sponsored by the company. Harvey Malcomson, of Harvey’s Auto Glass, was his primary backer.

The car notwithstanding, Morris himself already had a few nicknames, including “the Mad Chemist of Baker Street” (where he lived in Santa Ana), due to his experimentations with fuel. His favorite concoction was 97 percent nitro with dashes of methane, ethyl ether, hydrazine, and, finally, benzene, which he used to mask the scent of the other four and earned him his other nickname, “Stinky,” which he celebrated by painting a skunk on his racing helmet.

Initial motivation for the 1,550-pound machine was a 275-cid flathead engine backed by a ’41 Ford side-shift manual transmission, but by 1955, he switched to the new Chevrolet overhead-valve V-8. Smith was so successful at Santa Ana that he was able to turn his winnings into better parts, trading in dozens of trophies (at $5 a pop) to track manager C.J. Hart to buy a quick-change rear end and a better magneto. The car consistently ran more than 140 mph and won a ton of races against the likes of Calvin Rice, the Bean Bandits, and Jack Chrisman, the latter two of whom ultimately also built rear-engine cars.

Morris’ talents caught the eye of Fred Offenhauser Sr., and Morris ultimately became the head engineer for Offenhauser Equipment Corp. During his 30 years with the company, he designed some of its most successful products, including the Dual-Port 360, Dial-A-Flow, Port-O-Sonic, TurboThrust, and EquaFlow 360, and he worked with Carroll Shelby on the intake manifolds used in the 1960s Shelby Mustangs. He died in June 2008, at the age of 81, and left behind an incredible legacy.

A re-creation of Don Garlits' first rear-engine car, built in 1957.

Lest you think that “Big Daddy” arrived late to the rear-engine party in 1971, he and brother Ed, inspired by the success of Morris’ machine, set out to build their own similar car in 1957. Using Ford-T framerails and a 371-cid Oldsmobile engine, they built a high-gear-only machine that had a wheelbase of 100 inches. Ed sat in a surplus aircraft seat just inches ahead of the engine.

They never could get the car to go straight. In its maiden outing at the old airfield in Dunnellon, Fla., the car made hard right turns on back-to-back passes, carrying Ed off the track. They took it home, and at the suggestion of round-track friends, they quickened the steering and returned a few weeks later to Dunnellon, where the car did the exact same thing. The last time, Ed just barely missed hitting two parked cars and threw up his hands in disgust and surrender. “Big Daddy” also wanted no part of driving the evil little car, so they hauled it home and disassembled it, and eventually all of the pieces were lost. The car was re-created in the early 2000s and sits in Garlits’ museum.

The Coleman Bros. rear-engine car

Dennis Friend, proprietor of the Two-To-Go website, passed along a link to a recent eBay auction (since closed) for the Coleman Bros.' rear-engine dragster. According to the information accompanying the auction, the car was built by the Coleman Bros. Speed Shop out of Baltimore around 1960 using a Scotty Fenn/Chassis Research FL44 model and “shattered track records throughout the East Coast on its first three outings. On Sept. 23, 1961, driver Earl Howard broke 180 mph at an 8.91 e.t. at York U.S. 30 Dragway. Afterward Drag News proclaimed it to be the world’s fastest Chevy.

“In 1964, owner Duane Reynolds moved out west to Seattle, and it was raced at Arlington, Puyallup, and many other West Coast dragstrips. Sometime around 1965, the frame had been extended from the front spring perch some 48 inches. In this configuration, several drag papers stated times in the 8.70s and runs over 190 as late as 1967, which is around when it last ran.”

(Above) The Jones-Malliard-Chrisman rear-engine sidewinder was a terror in 1959. (Below) Jack Chrisman, far lane, took A/Dragster class honors with the car at the 1959 Nationals, defeating Don Hampton in Kenny Lindley’s Miss Fire III in the final.
The Mag-Winder never ran as good as it looked.

One of the wildest early rear-engine dragsters was the Chuck Jones and Joe Malliard-Chrisman sidewinder, which did some real damage in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The car was actually a hand-me-down from Paul Nicolini, who had built the car in 1957 with his father-in-law, Harry Duncan, a wealthy Southern California contractor. After enough bent axles, broken chain drives, and aborted runs, in 1959, he sold the car to Jones, who was well-known in drag racing circles as a fuel coupe racer at Santa Ana and managing editor for Drag News.

Jones brought Malliard, who owned a machine shop in Long Beach, into the picture along with third partner Jack Reed. Jack Chrisman, a well-respected wheelman whose best days still lay ahead, was tapped to drive the car, having earlier wheeled some rear-engine cars.

With a supercharged Chrysler for power, the car won almost from its inception and even set the NHRA national record at 9.11 in May 1959. A second version was built, and Chrisman took A/Dragster class honors and nearly won the 1959 Nationals in Detroit.

Kent Fuller was hired to build a third version, lighter and longer. They commissioned Fuller to build the car using magnesium tubing instead of chrome moly and covered with a full streamlined body (made of both magnesium and aluminum by Wayne Ewing), leading to the car's name, the Mag-Winder. The car weighed just more than 1,400 pounds race-ready. It debuted in late 1960 and ran fast but never was as successful as its predecessors. The car was campaigned infrequently; Chrisman, meanwhile, had moved on to Howard Johansen's camp and the Howard Cam Twin Bears gas dragster, with which he won the inaugural Winternationals in 1961.

Paul Shapiro lit the M&Hs in the Cohen-Shapiro-Sonnenblick-O’Brien Israeli Rocket at Miami’s Masters Field, a Marines airfield used for mid-1960s drags. This was an early shot, with the blown Olds for power. Steering was rack-and-pinion with aluminum front wheels from a Zundap motor scooter. (Bill Bussart photo)
Shapiro left on Bob Hamilton’s Southern Pride AA/D at NHRA's Division 2 WCS event at Masters Field (note future NHRA Chief Starter Buster Couch in middle). Hamilton’s former Garlits Swamp Rat V took the Top Eliminator win. The Rocket had bests of 8.46 at 185.50 in 1965 and won many Top Eliminator titles in Florida during the mid-1960s. (Bill Bussart photo)

Jim Hill, one of the Insider’s great sources of Southeast drag racing knowledge, passed along information about another great early rear-engine car, this one a Top Gasser from the mid-1960s known as the Israeli Rocket (long before Funny Car driver Leroy Goldstein had the nickname). According to Hill, the car recorded legitimate numbers (on certified Chrondek timers) of 8.46 at 185.50 mph, which were pretty good for 1964-65.

The diverse team consisted of driver Paul Shapiro, engine builder and tuner Howard Cohen, and partners Mike Sonnenblick and Tom O'Brien. According to Hill, the car's cowl carried a green shamrock and a Star of David, and this diverse group humorously called itself "Three Jews and an Irishman." The group had previously raced together, running a blown Olds-powered dragster and later the same Olds engine in an A/Roadster.

“The car was very soundly engineered and had many unique features not found on dragsters of the day,” Hill noted. “It was entirely homebuilt and boasted front rack-and-pinion steering (with the steer ratio slowed way down, for control), lightweight aluminum disc front wheels from a Zundap motor scooter, and loads of aircraft technology, components, and fasteners. As for handling, the car always went like it was on rails and never exhibited any of the spooky stuff that cursed early back-engine attempts.”

According to Hill, Shapiro, a certified aircraft weldor, assembled the chassis from 4130 chromoly and gas-welded the components. Cohen had degrees in mechanical and electrical engineering from the University of Miami and built and tuned the big-inch Dodge. Shapiro and Sonnenblick both worked in the aviation maintenance industry at MIA. O'Brien was an elevator technician with a local Miami company. All four were dedicated drag racers, albeit, part-time, weekends-only types.

“As all had successful businesses or careers, they were unable to travel outside the Southeast, so the car was never actually tested at the NHRA national level,” Hill added. “It did challenge for and take the Standard 1320 Drag News Top Gas No. 6 spot in January 1965. Shapiro defeated Cleveland, Ohio's Dick Vest at Fort Myers, Fla.'s Buckingham Drag Strip to take the No. 6 spot. They later defended the 6 spot against Lanier Dickerson in the Tampa-based Blue Mist. In 1965, they ran off a string of six Top Eliminator wins in a row at Palm Beach Int'l Raceway, but business and work commitments prevented their venturing much outside their Florida area.”
 
The team's initial choice of power was Oldsmobile, topped by a chain-driven 6-71 blower and four-hole Hilborn injector, which was later replaced by a 480-cid Dodge B wedge engine that used a unique fuel-injection system made by Dayton, Ohio's Dr. Pete Orner. It was with this combination that it recorded its best numbers. The wedge Dodge carried ported heads obtained from the Ramchargers by Cohen's Tampa friend, a fellow by the name of Don Garlits, who had knowledge of these engines, having run one in Top Gas at the 1962-63 NHRA Nationals, before NHRA’s fuel ban was lifted in 1964.

According to Hill, Cohen still lives in the Miami area, and O'Brien and Sonnenblick survive. Shapiro passed away several years ago. After a search for authentic parts, the car was reassembled and is now on display at Garlits’ Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Fla.

Another of my great historic sources, Bret Kepner, weighed in with his pick for the first “modern” rear-engine car, (“whatever THAT means!”), citing Bob Lindwall’s Chicago-based Re-Entry car, which Wayne Hill drove. “It was, without argument, the first rear-engined Top Fuel car over 200 mph, having performed the feat at multiple tracks in 1966, including its 201.34 mph crash at Indy,” he stated.

To bolster his claim, Kepner pointed out that the car used a three-point roll bar, a spaced-tubing frame design, and drag-link steering. “Without its body panels, the car would not look too different than the 1969-1970 versions of Widner, Foster, Ong, Schacker, or Garlits.” he asserted.

At right is a great video of the car losing to Noel Mauer in the Mauer & Willis Iowa dragster in the second round of the 1966 World Series of Drag Racing at Cordova. According to Kepner, Hill had already qualified at 200.44 and ran 202.24 to defeat Doc Halladay in the Kinn, Manke & Halladay rig in the opening round. 

The rear-engine transition story would not be complete without more information on Bernie Schacker, who, as mentioned last week, had one of the earliest rear-engine Top Fuelers. Thanks to the ever-faithful Insider Nation, and Alex Ardizzone in particular, I was able to finally talk to Schacker a few days ago.

Schacker, an electrician in his mid-30s with four kids at the time, probably seems an unlikely candidate to make history, but I have confirmed that he indeed did make the first six-second clocking in a rear-engine dragster in mid-1970 and that he had been campaigning his car all that season, well before Garlits’ much-publicized accident with his front-engine car.

Schacker, who began tinkering with cars after getting out of the Navy, is a self-taught hot rodder who built his own race cars, including the historic rear-engine car. He had been competing in Top Fuel since the mid-1960s with front-engine cars and, despite their bad reputation, “didn’t see any reason why a rear-engined car wouldn’t work, and it certainly would be safer,” he said. To prove it to himself and others, he converted his final front-engine car to a rear-engine design by welding additional tubing behind the roll cage and moving the engine from his lap to behind his head. He used the exact drivetrain from the front-engine car, which is why the engine was so close to the rear tires, and the same steering ratio as the slingshot.

“People thought [rear-engine] cars were hard to drive because the driver wasn’t oriented to the attitude of the car and didn’t know when the car was out of shape," he said. "The first time I drove mine, at New York National [Speedway] during the week, I clipped a piston and got oil under the tires, but I knew exactly where I was. I was really happy to debunk that theory.”

This was all taking place at about the same time that Woody Gilmore debuted his ill-fated first rear-engine car, and when Pat Foster stacked up Gilmore’s car on one of its first runs, folks scoffed at Schacker’s efforts, too.

“My fellow racers thought I was nuts at first; they were writing my obituary,” he recalled with a laugh. “But everyone was interested in it because it was so different. Back then, the front-engined cars all pretty much looked the same.”

Schacker’s car also was outfitted with a rear wing from the outset, which also was a first.

Later that year, Schacker sold the car to Red Lang, of Dead End Kids fame, and continued to drive for the team through the 1971 U.S. Nationals, where they qualified but were unable to make eliminations due to engine damage.

Schacker was in and out of racing for more than a decade, dabbling here and there, but made a big splash in the late 1980s with a streamlined Top Alcohol Dragster that, naturally, he built himself with partner Rod Abrams. Inspired by the Top Fuel streamliners of Garlits, Gary Ormsby, and others, Schacker designed and built his car – including the body -- with an eye toward their slippery designs but with a shorter wheelbase of about 220 inches and some Funny Car ideas.

“It had a torsion-bar front suspension that I built, and the car handled real nice – it was smooth as glass at the top end -- but we were breaking a lot of motors, so we never really found out what it could do,” he lamented. “We wanted to go to A/Fuel, but the car was too heavy, so we parked it.”

Looking back over these past few columns, it’s clear that it was a long road to the success and acceptance of the rear-engine dragster as a viable and reliable design and that a lot of racers had a hand in bringing Top Fuel to its current state. Remember them the next time you’re sitting in the stands watching the cars practically defy the laws of physics. I’ll see you next week.

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