NHRA - National Hot Rod Association

Leonard Harris, drag racing's shooting star

15 Dec 2008
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor

During a six-month span in 1960, there was no hotter drag racing pilot than Leonard Harris, whose career ended with his tragic death in October, just six weeks after his Nationals triumph.

Gene Adams took to drag racing naturally, and he could make an Oldsmobile engine sing. He set the B/Gas national speed record at the 1957 Nationals in this fastback '50 Olds.

A shooting star blazes its way across the sky in a spectacular but short-lived burst of glory, and that's an apt metaphor for the all-too-short drag racing career of Leonard Harris. He may well be the best driver you've never really heard of.

In a short six-month span, Harris, a filling-station owner from Playa del Rey, on the shores of the Pacific west of Los Angeles, went from a relatively unknown racer to being an NHRA Nationals champ and earning a still-standing regard as one of the best race car drivers in the sport's history.

In researching this article and interviewing the many principals, I was amazed at their genuine admiration for a man whose time on the NHRA stage was so brief but, like that shooting star, so intense.

From the time he partnered with engine wiz Gene Adams and chassis builder Ronnie Scrima in April 1960 until his tragic death at Lions Drag Strip, just six months had been stripped from the calendar, but they'd all fallen directly into the history books.

At the wheel of the team's famed Albertson Olds dragster, the group was all but unbeatable, a testament in part to the power that Adams brewed but also to Harris' skillful application of that power.

There was never any question that the old master Adams, initially an aircraft mechanic by trade who started out by hot rodding his dad's '50 Olds 88 at the Santa Ana Drags in 1952, could make power. His trademark Oldsmobile engines were widely acknowledged as the best in the business, and after just a handful of years in the sport, he'd enjoyed success with Olds entries that dominated the coupe and sedan classes at SoCal tracks such as Santa Ana and Saugus – and even set a B/Gas national record of 111.24 at the 1957 Nationals in Oklahoma City -- in the years before meeting Harris and certainly in the years after Harris' passing, but there's also little doubt that Harris brought his own magic to the combination.

The partnership that developed between Harris, Adams, and Scrima was a combination of coincidence and a harmonic convergence of hot rodding forces in Culver City, home to the burgeoning hot rod industry with shops such as Isky and Edelbrock and a dedicated and savvy group of hot rodders that included the likes of future Freight Train engineers John Peters and Nye Frank, Mike Sorokin, "Jazzy Jim" Nelson, Craig Breedlove, Hank Bender, Ron Hier, Bill Adair, Walt Stevens, Frank "Root Beer" Hedges, Mickey Brown, Ed Weddle, and more.

While Adams was serving a two-year stint in the Army in the late 1950s, Scrima partnered with Mort Smith – with whom he worked at Engle Cams --- and Adams' brother, Gary, using one of Adams' Olds engines in a dragster, initially one that Scrima had built but more notably in one of Scotty Fenn's iconic TE-440 chassis. Scrima had worked with Adams before, most notably on a trip to the 1957 Nationals, and although Adams was a door-car guy, he'd visit with the gang at the drags while he was on leave and eventually also became interested in the "rail jobs."

"Ronnie was a dragster guy, and he was interested in the Olds engine, so when I got drafted, I told him he could use my engine Olds in his dragster," recalled Adams. "I’d come home on leave and go out with them, and that thing was so much faster and easy to work on that I got converted."

As was sometimes the case in those early years, the going wasn't always easy and the cost not always cheap. Brown substituted for Smith on a fateful Sept. 12 night in 1959 at Lions and was killed in the car when it overturned.

Harris, Adams, and Ronnie Scrima formed a team in April and got parts sponsorship from Culver City-based Albertson Olds. (Above) Harris stood between Lou Albertson and sales manager Phil McNab. Adams and Scrima are kneeling. (Below) While Scrima was preparing the team's new dragster, Adams and Harris got acquainted when Adams dropped his powerful blown Olds engine into Harris' new Fiat.

When Adams got out of the Army in January 1960, he returned to his old haunts, which in Culver City meant the famed Albertson Olds dealership, just down

Sepulveda Boulevard
from Adams' West L.A. home.

"Everybody had Oldsmobiles, and Albertson was the place everyone went to get their parts; that's where I met Leonard one day while getting parts for my engines," said Adams. "A lot of people hung out there. Don Farr was the parts manager and really a neat guy and interested in racing. He helped us all out and knew exactly what to give everyone. He knew everything."

And he also knew Harris, who owned a Seaside service station in Playa del Rey and was a well-known street racer with his yellow '56 Olds. After one too many tickets, Harris and buddy "Stump" Davis decided that maybe the drags could better serve as their outlet. Harris bought a Fiat-bodied competition coupe and planned to build a blown Olds engine to slide between the framerails.

Adams and Scrima had purchased a K-88 chassis from Fenn, and while Scrima was modifying its design – much to the displeasure of Fenn – Adams, at Farr's suggestion, agreed to drop his 407-cid Olds engine into Harris' Fiat. The car, dubbed Lil Red Rocket, ran well, in the high-nine-second range, and Harris' skills behind the wheel impressed Adams.

"Leonard did such a good job of driving the Fiat that we decided to go with Leonard for our dragster," recalled Adams. "Poor Mort got left out."

As a student of the VeniceHigh School class of 1950, Harris, a slight 5 feet, 6 inches, had been a two-time national champion gymnast on the rings. Classmate Hank Bender, who was a few years behind Harris and had his own Chevy-powered car with driver Ron Hier, initially was surprised by Harris' aptitude behind the wheel, something he hadn’t shown 10 years earlier in high school.

"At school, Leonard wasn't really known as a drag racer or a car guy," he recalled. "He was an all-city gymnast, and everyone in the school knew who he was because of that. My first recollection of him driving was at Long Beach one time when they brought out the Albertson Olds car and they announced that Leonard Harris was going to drive this car. I didn’t think it was the same guy. He just kind of exploded on the scene."

The skill, strength, and concentration it took to reach that elite level of gymnastics obviously paid off behind the wheel.

"He had tremendous concentration and a lot of muscle coordination," recalled Adams. "He had both of those things working for him, which is really great for a driver. He was something else; he was one of a kind."

It didn't take the Albertson Olds team long to begin making waves. After a pair of Top Eliminator wins at Lions, the team set the NHRA record May 15 at Inyokern Dragstrip in Southern California's high desert.

The 28-year-old Harris made his unofficial debut in the team's dragster – now sponsored by Albertson Olds, which gave the teams parts, including heads, blocks, and cranks -- at Lions April 23, 1960, with a few test passes (the team arrived too late to qualify for the day's racing), and the next day at San Fernando Raceway, the Albertson Olds broke Tommy Ivo's track record with a 9.30, set top speed of the meet at 163.33 mph, and won the event, then did the same thing a week later at Lions.

Two weeks later, after anoither Lions win, Harris set the national record on May 15 at the NHRA Record Meet at Inyokern in California's high desert but wounded Adams' engine in the process. Adams, who that year had begun working at Hilborn, immediately built a bigger and more powerful engine, using a '59 block with an early four-port Hilborn injector and a 6-71 blower, and the next weekend returned to Lions (May 21), where the team began an incredible string of 12 straight Top Eliminator wins that ran through Aug. 20.

Recalled Adams, "At that point in time, Long Beach was pretty slick when the dew would come in, and if you had a lot of power, you really had to ease into it before you could get after it, kind of like needing a clutch-management system, except the driver had to do it. Later when they learned how to keep it real clean, it ended up as one of the best tracks in the world, but from '59 to about '62 or '63, it was pretty slick. We had a pretty light car for the time and a big-cubic-inch Olds; I had been running Oldsmobile for years, so I knew my way around them pretty good, and Engle was a tremendous amount of help."

Former Top Fuel driver Carl Olson, who counts Harris among his first hot rodding heroes, said, “I've watched a lot of drivers pass down the quarter-mile in my life, but none that ever impressed me more than Leonard Harris. Even before the advent of such technology as reaction timers or, for that matter, even the Christmas Tree starting system, Harris was always the first to leave. I never saw him make a mistake on a run."

Tom Jobe, who in a few years would become part of the successful triumvirate that formed the popular Surfers Top Fuel team, recalled, "I was younger than the Leonard Harris/Gene Adams group, so I was hanging on the fence at Long Beach watching when the Albertson Olds car was winning every week. In hindsight, I think Leonard Harris' exceptional strength and physical coordination made him the earliest successful 'clutch-management system.' They did not smoke the tires very hard, and that beautiful car would really accelerate! Long Beach would get very slippery when the evening dew would mix with the refinery emissions, and the Albertson Olds car handled that better than any competitor out there, week after week."

"You could see the way he walked and carried himself that he was a great athlete," recalled Ron Miller, race coordinator for the nostalgia-themed Standard 1320 group. "He was one of those universally well-liked and respected drivers who could drive anything."

(Above) Harris' distinct driving style is evident here, steering wheel held at 12 o'clock and head dipped to his left to see around the blower. The tuning savvy of Adams (below inset) made the Albertson Olds nearly unbeatable in the early 1960s (shown here with Tom McEwen driving).

Harris' cousin, Lou Senter, who founded Ansen Automotive in 1948 in Los Angeles and produced an extensive line of speed equipment that included pop-up pistons, competition shifters, and the first NHRA-accepted bellhousings, also was high on Harris' adaptability and even had planned to build a dragster, powered by a Packard engine, for his cousin. Senter, who also owned sprint cars and once fielded three entries in the Indy 500, thought that Harris also would have made a fine champ-car driver.

"His coordination was so perfect, you couldn’t ask for more," opined Senter. "He would have made a good oval-track driver. He probably was one of the best drivers out there. He had a very good name; everyone told me he was the best there was. He used to come down to Ansen and tell me that he would never watch the flagman; he would watch the lights only. He was always first off the line. He was a very sharp mechanic, too, a very athletic guy, and well-liked. I don’t think there was a mean streak in him. He had a personality that you had to like."

Remembered Greg Sharp, drag racing historian and the Wally Parks NHRAMotorsportsMuseum presented by Auto Club of Southern California curator, "A straightforward driver, Harris would enter the staging area with the engine just above idle; he never winged the throttle or abused the motor. He would stage, bring up the motor, then leave. He seemed to have a sixth sense about who he had to leave on, who he could drive around, and he did only what was necessary to win."

In addition to its Lions skein — during which the team also ran its first eight, an 8.98 July 9 — the team scored Top Eliminator wins at Pomona and Riverside and lost just three times away from Lions. As summer began to wane and all eyes turned toward Detroit and that year's Nationals, there seemed little question that the team should venture east to try to continue its hot hand.

"Everyone wanted us to go back there," said Adams. "Engle was our cam guy, and because we were doing so well, Albertson wanted us to go, too. They gave us some tow money, so we went."

Although the fields at Lions were incredibly tough, all of the sport's top names from across the country were in Detroit, but fate dealt the Albertson Olds team an inside straight. The track had recently been repaved and was as slick as any track anyone could remember.

"Detroit was worse than Long Beach," said Adams. "I don't know what they did, but it was not good at all. No one ran good. We ran 9.25, and we were running 9.0s at Long Beach. A lotta guys just smoked the tires."

The Albertson Olds team won the A/Dragster class, topping 35 other entries with a 9.65 best, and later ran 9.49 and was selected to run for Top Eliminator against Dode Martin and his and Jim Nelson's twin-Chevy-powered Two-Thing AA/D, which had run 9.49, and James "Red" Dyer, whose '56 Chrysler-powered '27-T Tennessee Bo-Weevil A/Modified Roadster had run 9.89.

The Albertson Olds team in the limelight of the Top Eliminator winner's circle at the 1960 Nationals in Detroit. Flanked by a champion Spark Plug rep, left, and starter Joe Gutierrez are, from left, Scrima, Harris, Adams, and two of Harris' lifelong pals, Vern Tomlinson and "Stump" Davis.

Harris beat Martin in a close battle, then took on Dyer for national bragging rights and a new '60 Ford station wagon that was part of the winner's bounty and finished it off with a sterling 9.25, which also was low e.t. of the meet.

"We figured we had as good a chance as anyone, but there were a lot of twin-engine cars that were hard to beat," said Adams. "We were able to beat them most of the time because Leonard was a great driver. It was big, big deal to win it. Everybody was there; there was an unbelievable number of cars there. Anybody who had a blown gas dragster – dual engine or single – was there: Connie Kalitta, the Dragmaster Two-Thing, Jack Chrisman with the Howard Cams Twin Bear, Big Wheel from Minnesota…"

Before heading home, the team -- which also included Harris' good friends, Davis and Vern Tomlinson -- headed to Minnesota Dragways for a match race with the Bruce "Stormin'" Norman-driven Big Wheel dragster, caravanning with fellow Olds racer Don Ratican and the Ratican-Jackson-Stearns team, towing the Ford station wagon at the Nationals with the eight trophies won between the two cars laid out in the back of the wagon.

Ratican remembers the odd sight he encountered exiting his motel room one day. There was Harris, hanging onto the roof overhang, legs sticking out horizontal to the ground in a show of his former gymnastic skills.

"Leonard was a tremendous driver," recalled Ratican. "He jumped in my Fiat one time and drove it as quick and fast as Ronnie [Stearns] ever did. He could drive anything."

Before heading home to Lions to continue its winning streak, the Albertson Olds team beat the Big Wheel on its home Minnesota turf. From left are Davis, Adams, Tomlinson, Scrima, and Harris.

Harris and Adams again took advantage of tricky traction and defeated the previously unbeaten Big Wheel on its home turf. The team returned from its trek to the Midwest and promptly ran up another six wins at Lions, beginning Sept. 24, to extend its streak to 18 straight wins at "the Beach" and began looking forward to a big match race Oct. 22 at Lions against Chrisman and the twin-engine Howard Cams dragster. Hyped as The Match Race of the Century, the match also was for a spot on the prestigious Drag News Mr. Eliminator list and was so important to the team that Adams planned to forgo the traditional eliminations altogether to concentrate on the match.

The match race, however, never happened and set into motion the tragic chain of events that would lead to Harris' death.

"By the time we got there, the Howard's car was already on the trailer," recalled Adams. "They had broke one of the engines. So we went ahead and made a pass to run eliminations. We were cooling it off and water came out of one of the plug holes, so we decided we were done, too. When you broke something is those days, you didn't try to fix it because you raced every week. We put it on the trailer and later found out it had a cracked cylinder wall.

"We went up in the stands and started watching, and Leonard got an offer to help these guys out who were having a handling problem. He made a pass and then came over and told us it was pulling to the left in the lights but decided to give it another try."

There seems to be some confusion about the name of the entry as time has blurred many memories, but the car into which Harris hopped was either the Firestone Realty or Firestone Auto Wrecking entry, and its regular driver may have been former Adams-Scrima shoe Smith, and a solid handler named Norm Taylor may have also tried unsuccessfully to tame the beast earlier in the day. Again, memories are fuzzy.

Dan "Buzz" Broussard, a longtime pal of Davis, wasn't at Lions the night that Harris was killed, and although he did have an inkling that the car itself was ill-fated, he had no idea it would claim Harris' life.

"There was a muffler shop down the street from Keith Black's shop in South Gate," he recalled. "I happened to be at Keith's and stopped by [the muffler shop] as they were just assembling the chassis to go to Lions  It was a menagerie of people trying to put this car together, and I didn't want to be part of it. It really was a disaster. I think the car absolutely was rushed together. I don’t specifically know what went wrong, but it was a disaster waiting to happen. They were fumbling with the front end and other things, and I just didn’t want to be around it. I didn't go down there [to Lions]."

Broussard, whose own car was runner-up at the 1963 March Meet with McEwen at the wheel, remembers Harris as "a terrific guy, calm, not hyper, mild-mannered; he could adapt to anything." That may have been Harris' undoing; he lost his life on the next pass in the car, in the first round of eliminations.

Some say that the front axle broke, others that a steering arm came off; though the cause of the crash will never be known, it was clear that somehow the car got away from Harris, and as a stunned Lions crowd watched in disbelief, it made a left turn into the catch fence alongside the track and got upside down. Harris succumbed to injuries suffered in the accident.

"Everything was all crunched up, and you couldn't tell what happened," recalled Adams. "It was just the perfect storm for the accident."

"I guess I could say, in all honesty, that the only mistake I ever saw Leonard Harris make at a dragstrip was getting into that car that night to do a fellow racer a favor," said a reflective Olson. “I'll never forget that fateful night. I was at the finish line sitting on top of a small concession stand located there, which was not in use at the time. On this run, Harris was matched up against the Quincy Automotive twin Chevy, which was well ahead at the finish line. As a result, I was concentrating on the Quincy car when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of sparks. What followed was one of the most violent crashes I've ever observed. I just knew that it had been an unsurvivable incident and that my hero was gone. I drove home that night with a very heavy heart. His passing wasn't confirmed until the next day, but it certainly came as no surprise.”

The stunning accident cut the heart and a bit of the spirit right out of the team.

"It shook up Scrima so bad he didn’t want to race anymore," said Adams. "Albertson didn't want anything to do with it either. They figured that if something like that would happen to our car, they might be in a position to be sued. We raced Tom McEwen every week, so he said he would buy Ronnie out."

Tom McEwen succeeded Harris in Adams' dragster, and they continued together for a few years with successful entries such as the Shark car.

Adams and McEwen continued with the now-Albertson-less Olds car for about four months before trading it in for their high-back car and later the Kent Fuller-built Shark car.

"We did real well, but nothing like we did with Leonard," recalled Adams. "Things were changing rapidly, technically getting better all the time; people were building lighter cars and making more power, so you couldn’t stay with the same thing for very long, We could see that our car was heavy and wasn't going to work.

"The '60s were an amazing time," he added wistfully. "Every week at Long Beach, you never knew what you were going to see. Guys would have three engines, aircraft engines, engines sitting sideways, a Chevy in front of a Chrysler, two F85s. It was funny. I was pretty conventional, pretty much stayed with a single-engine car."

Adams, of course, went on to have a successful run with a number of drivers, including Don Enriquez, Jimmy Scott, John Mulligan, Steve Carbone (briefly, after Mulligan broke his jaw in an auto accident), Mike Snively, Billy Scott, Ed Vickroy, and Chess Bushey, and, today, Kin Bates' A/Fuel car in NHRA's Hot Rod Heritage Racing Series.

Still, it's Harris and that amazing summer and early fall of 1960 for which many people most remember Adams, for his amazing yet short partnership with one of drag racing history's best drivers whose life and career were cut tragically short. In 30 races together, they won 22 times at six dragstrips.

Recalled McEwen, "That Albertson Olds car was a stout piece -- one of the only single-engined cars that could beat the duals -- and Leonard was like a computer when he drove it. I remember that Gene would get mad at me because I couldn’t drive it as good as Leonard. He was unbelievably talented. He would have been one of the all-time greats, no doubt about it."