NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

The good ol' days of magazines

Dick Wells tells Hot Rod stories; reader Don Nickles recalls shooting photos at Lions; 
23 Jan 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

There probably isn't a week that we work here at National DRAGSTER that doesn't cause us to do some research from previous issues that date back 10, 15, 20, or more years, where we often come across the names of those who sat in these seats before us (well, not these exact seats) and did the jobs we do.

I received this great photo the other day from NHRA board member Dick Wells, himself a former National DRAGSTER Editor. It shows him, on the left, along with DRAGSTER's first photo editor, the late Rich Joy, standing next to a nice sedan delivery with DRAGSTER signage. Wells figures the photo was taken by Wally Parks at Inyokern Dragstrip in the high desert north of Los Angeles in 1962.

Of course, we lost Wally last September and Joy in December following two bouts with cancer, but Wells, who remained a lifelong confidante to Parks, is left to tell the tales of the first days of National DRAGSTER.

"We did NHRA record runs at Inyokern, I think annually; the drag strip was operated by the Dust Devils, a good-size club of which Bernie Partridge was a member for many years. Inyokern was Bernie's introduction to NHRA. I'm certain the Chevy panel was the first NHRA 'company car.' There's a story about Tex Smith driving it crosscountry on some mission, and during a stopover in a small town in the Midwest, he parked on a side street, probably to take a lunch break. When he returned to the car, a young man was sitting on a stoop near the curb, crying. Tex was naturally puzzled. When he asked what was wrong, the young man said he was an avid fan of NHRA and never in his wildest dreams did he ever expect to see an NHRA 'car' parked in front of his house. It was an emotional experience for Tex. It taught us — all of us — what NHRA was doing and what it meant to those legions of fans, thanks in large part to 'the word' being spread in those days by Hot Rod Magazine."

Hot Rod and National DRAGSTER weren't the only publications in those days, of course, and got a fair run for readers from Drag News. Don Nickles, a longtime reader of this column, worked for Dean Brown at Drag News, which began publishing biweekly in 1955, five years before ND, and closed in 1977, some 700 issues later. We all marvel at the skills of today's photographers whose equipment – digital cameras, PhotoShop touchups, 10-frame-per-second motordrives -- surely would have seemed science fiction to the pioneers of the 1950s. Nickles, still a spry 72, like Wells, Parks, and Joy, was one of that hearty breed in the early days, and it was though their images and those of their peers that fans across the country first came to "meet" the heroes of our sport.

A year after graduating from college with an AA Degree in Photographic Science in 1955, Nickles answered a Drag News ad in the L.A. Times for a photographer and landed the job. Drag News was a storefront operation, in North Long Beach on Atlantic Blvd, with no photographic equipment or dark room. Nickles used his own Rolliflex and other cameras and delivered the images to Brown.

"I worked part time, shooting pictures, developing and printing them," he recalled. "I covered Lions, Santa Ana, San Fernando, Colton, Fontana, and Irwindale. At night I used a heavy strobe light unit that I carried over my shoulder. Sometimes it felt like 100 pounds of dead weight. I shot the photos, developed the film and printed the pictures in a darkroom at my house and delivered them for about $25 a race. That was pretty good money for the time. [1959 Drag News ad, courtesy Dave Wallace]

"I have some good memories. There was a lot of ingenuity and experimentation going on during those years. One night as I walked to the stating line, a dragster was sitting still on the line with its rear wheels spinning. When the flag was raised a teammate let the dragster down with a dolly and off he went. This dragster was a rear engine set sideways. The car had no transmission and no brakes. It stopped when the engine was shut off. The dragster was called the Piece of Pie. Another memorable car was the Coburn Glaze Special, a Fiat-bodied coupe with two supercharged engines, two rear ends, and four rear wheels with slicks. Man, was that car loud! Another memorable car was called the Iron Lung. It had two superchargers --- one crank-driven and the other on top of the engine -- which were connected. I remember 'Jazzy Jim' Nelson’s Fiat Coupe. The car was powered by a Ford Flathead engine and was very successful. I visited his home one time and he showed me his trophies. They were stored on top of his garage and it looked like there were hundreds of them."

Nickles remembers one interesting Sunday when Drag News was short of photographers, so Brown had him shoot at two different dragstrips, 70-80 miles apart. He started in the morning at Santa Ana, where he shot qualifying pictures and cars he thought might win, then jumped into a Cessna that Drag News had hired to fly him to San Fernando. San Fernando had an airport right next to it so it worked out.

When Brown sold the newspaper, Nickles decided it was time move on too. He was working a good full time job and wanted to spend his weekends with my young family. "I remember my time on the starting line with POWER screaming toward me and my camera," he recalls. "I have been a member of NHRA for years and attend local races. My buddy, Russ Jones, and I have permanent reserved tickets at Pomona. We sit high up on the starting line so we can see the burnouts, the starts, and the finishes. For 50 years I have been amazed by the creativity, engineering science, skill and bravery of the drivers. I love the smell of nitro!"