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Our drag sport, illustrated

03 Dec 2010
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider

National DRAGSTER may have the longevity record for drag racing weeklies, and Drag News will always be considered by some to have been the sport's authoritative tome, but there still was room for others to try their hand at the sometimes-tricky business of publishing racing news and photos.

In early 1963, Phil Bellomy, a kid from Southern California's San Gabriel Valley, did just that, launching an ambitious publication called Drag Sport Illustrated. Bellomy partnered with well-known photographer Jim Kelly to launch the new publication, whose first issue was cover-dated March 3, 1963. As implied by the name and enhanced by Kelly's photographic expertise, DSI was heavy on photos while DRAGSTER, which was launched in 1960, and Drag News, which debuted in 1955, had more in-depth stories and perhaps fewer photos. In many ways, the reportage, which was sometimes more folksy than factual (especially the headlines) but nonetheless featured an all-star lineup such as Ralph Guldahl, Dave Wallace, Forrest Bond, Mike Kotowski, and Steve Gibbs, was less important than the photos, which was just fine with a lot of folks who, like today, were getting their news from a variety of sources anyway.

With the support and encouragement and expertise of local printer Carl Bennitt, DSI was printed on high-grade Electrabrite newsprint – much better than what was offered by Drag News or ND – to enhance the appearance of the photography submitted by greats such as Kelly, Dave Shipman, Tim Marshall, Bill Turney, Charles Strutt, and others.

Issues ranged from as few as eight pages in the first year to 30 pages and covered everything from dragsters to stockers to gassers, motorcycles, and altereds. Although prime coverage was given to SoCal venues such as Lions, Fontana, and San Fernando, DSI also covered action across the country, including from the few NHRA national events at the time. Despite gaining popular favor, the dream died in July 1966 when DSI was abruptly shut down.

A lot of folks have never heard of DSI let alone seen its contents, but thanks to the dedicated efforts of Ron Johnson and Don Ewald, fans can now view 103 issues in PDF format on a new two-CD set recently released and available for just $25 here and in the gift shops at the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Musuem presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California and at the Petersen Automotive Museum. The collection spans from that March 1963 issue through March 1965.

Johnson borrowed from Bob Thompson his complete collection and enlisted Ewald, webmaster for both Cacklefest.com and his We Did It For Love (wdifl.com) sites, to do the heavy lifting of scanning the issues. The project probably started in June, and Ewald finished the first two years of issues in September so that they could get a CD set produced for the California Hot Rod Reunion presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California. Ewald estimated that he spent about 230 hours scanning and touching up in Photoshop each page for maximum presentation.

Ewald also had to contact Bellomy, who still held the original copyright, to work out that issue. Johnson paid the fees for the right to reproduce and sell the scanned collection for a limited time.

I had a chance to review the set and peruse some of the great articles. We've scanned dozens of issues of National DRAGSTER ourselves with the ambition of someday making a compete set (which, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, already is nearing 2,400 issues), and it's no easy feat to scan them and make them look good. There are a few bleed-through issues with some of the DSI files (print from one side of the page ghosting onto the other in the scanning process), but it's minimal and not really invasive.

You can find great coverage from an incredible period in our sport's history when Top Fuelers ruled the roost at local tracks far and wide and enjoy photos of some of that era's great cars.

The second CD also features DSI's 1965 calendar, a wonderful full-color keepsake. As you know, the newsweeklies back then didn't have any color photography, and we don’t get many chances to see cars such as the Greer-Black-Prudhomme entry, Connie Kalitta's Bounty Hunter, the Yeakel Plymouth dragster, the Chizler, "Big John" Mazmanian's Willys, and others in full-glory color.

You can also still order the Drag News collection from wdifl.com here. With these two collections, you'll be able to hold your own when it comes to those weekend bench racing sessions and to call me out on my work, too! I know I'll be adding it to my arsenal of tools for deciphering our sport's history.

Someday, we'll have a collection of National DRAGSTER issues you can buy – we've been toying with the idea of single-issue downloads of our coverage from historic events like the 1967 Nationals, 1972 Supernationals, 1975 World Finals, et al – but until then, you’re going to have to just trust me on some of this stuff.