Raymond Godman, Preston Davis, and the restored Tennessee Bo-Weevil will be at this year's U.S. Nationals. (Louis Kimery photo)
When I think about this great sport that I’ve enjoyed now as a fan for more than 40 years and that has employed me and taken me in as one of its own for more than 30, I have a great deal of gratitude for the people who helped get us here. It was my honor and privilege to work for years with NHRA founder Wally Parks and his wife, Barbara, to learn firsthand some of the trials and tribulations they went through. And while the dedicated staff that helped make Wally’s dream come true — guys like Ray Brock, the Safety Safari foursome of Bud Coons, Bud Evans, Chic Cannon, and Eric Rickman; the original division directors; and more — were the driving force, they had plenty of support around the country from dedicated racers who also believed in the dream and helped bring it to fruition.
I got the wonderful chance earlier this week to speak to one of those unsung heroes, Raymond Godman, though it’s kind of hard to call a legend like him “unsung” because he is known by many as the wheelchair-bound owner of the famed Tennessee Bo-Weevil entries from the 1960s and 1970s. But, just as important as his on-track histrionics, Godman also was a guy who was right there in the trenches far on the other side of the Mississippi from NHRA, helping to promote and grow the sport we all love in places that NHRA couldn’t always reach. He was a staunch supporter and ultimately a great friend to Wally and Barbara and also one of the sport’s premier mechanics.
The opportunity to speak to Godman and, later, to his longtime driver, Preston Davis, came about as the result of their plans to bring their restored A/Modified Roadster to Indy this year as part of the 60th Anniversary special. So much has been written about the duo — and of Godman’s perseverance after being paralyzed in the Korean War — that I had originally planned just to write about the restoration of the car, but it didn’t take long for Godman’s Tennessee-friendly nature and keen memory to convince me otherwise. His story is so deep and rich and meaningful that it deserves to be told again and again.
Godman worked with NHRA founder Wally Parks to bring drag racing to the Memphis, Tenn., area, and the two remained lifelong friends.
A life changed
Godman was actually a circle-track driver in the Memphis area in the late 1940s before being called to duty in Korea in 1951. It will be 63 years ago this Sept. 17 that his life changed forever, when a young 23-year-old Marine from Fox Company, Fifth Regiment, 1st Marine Division “got shot up” by a sniper’s bullet, paralyzing him from the waist down
“We were fighting the Chinese, each just trying to kill the other," he recalls. "It was horrible fighting. In a 24-hour period, we lost 91 dead, 771 wounded. When I got shot, I knew it was bad. They put me and another fella on a helicopter to an aid station. When we landed, the other guy was dead. They couldn’t do much for me at the aid station; they told me they didn’t think I’d make it through the night and they had other wounded coming in to take care of. I was still alive the next morning.”
He was treated in South Korea and Japan before being sent back to the United States in a hospital ship. He tried to resume his driving career in a midget car with hand controls but couldn’t control the car to his satisfaction. The cockpit’s loss was drag racing’s gain.
“I became interested in drag racing in 1953 just as it was starting to come on. I realized I could be more active in the pits in drag racing than in circle-track racing, and maybe thought I could drive one at some point, though I never did. I got in touch with Wally at Hot Rod to offer my help.”
Godman was a charter member of the Memphis Rodders car club, which began to hold drag races at an abandoned Air Force base in Halls, Tenn., in 1953. They bought some Chrondek timers and would set up their impromptu track for a full day of racing Sunday, then tear it all down and hold their regular car-club meeting that evening.
Parks later appointed Godman as one of NHRA’s regional advisers, and Godman asked Parks if the Safety Safari (then known as the Drag Safari) could come to his hometown. He put the team up at his house, and the event was hosted in the summer of 1955, just before the first Nationals in Great Bend, Kan.
(Above) Godman and driver James "Red" Dyer at the 1960 Nationals in Detroit, where they were Top Eliminator runners-up. (Below) Two years later, at the Nationals in Indy, Harrison Jacob drove the Bo-Weevil to Middle Eliminator honors.
Godman and his driver, James “Red” Dyer, took part in the inaugural Nationals — he would go on to attend the Big Go for the first 57 editions, the first 24 as a competitor — and they won AA/Comp class honors.
Two years later, they won the AA/Comp class trophy at the NHRA Nationals in Oklahoma City with a flathead-powered roadster, a car that inspired the Tennessee Bo-Weevil nickname.
“Red and I were working on the car in the garage. It was 2 o’clock in the morning, and we’d just finished making a chicken wire and fiberglass mesh nose," said Godman. "We stopped and went out to stand in the backyard, and looking back into the garage at the car, the nose looked like a point, and Red, who was as country as you ever saw, he said that it kinda looks like a [cotton] bo-weevil snout. I said, ‘What about a Tennessee Bo-Weevil?’ and that’s how the car got its name.” (NHRA, however, did not think much of the original snout and banned it after the 1959 Nationals, according to Davis.)
In 1958, Godman built a new car, based on a Scotty Fenn/Chassis Research TE440 kit, that proved very successful; it’s this car that Davis recently restored (more on that later).
Godman continued to race and promote drag racing in Memphis, which led to him opening Lakeland Dragstrip on July 4, 1960; Buster Couch was his first starter, and it was Godman who recommended Couch to Parks for the soon-vacant position as Division 2 Director.
Later that year, Godman and Dyer were Top Eliminator runner-ups to Leonard Harris and the vaunted Albertson Olds at the Nationals in Detroit in what was an almost-too-close-to-call final. A few weeks later, with Harris and car owner Gene Adams having returned to the West Coast to match race, Parks called upon Godman and Dyer to have the honor of making the first pass down the newly built dragstrip in Indianapolis that would host the Nationals the following year (and every year since). It was a big shindig with representatives from the IndyCar world, too, including Parnelli Jones, Rodger Ward, A.J. Foyt, and J.C. Agajanian.
In late 1961, Godman sold the Chassis Research car and began campaigning a Dragmaster-chassised machine that Harrison Jacobs took to Middle Eliminator honors at the 1962 Nationals. The duo finished runner-up in the points championship that year, just 15 points behind Jess Van Deventer. A few years later, Sonny Adkins drove Godman’s BB/Fuel Dragster to the Super eliminator title in front of their home-state fans at the 1967 Springnationals in Bristol.
Enter Preston Davis
In late 1967, Godman moved up to Top Fuel, and, after a falling out with Adkins after the U.S. Nationals, he hired fellow Memphis Rodder member Davis as his driver, and the two raced together for the next 11 years.
Davis had cut his racing teeth in gas dragsters — one of his first dragsters actually used the chassis of Godman’s Modified Roadster and another, a George Root-built rail, was a C/Dragster national record holder — and had been a regular competitor at Lakeland.
“I heard that Raymond and Sonny had parted company and that there was an opening to drive the Bo-Weevil, so I called him,” Davis recalls. “We were in the same car club but not really on the same level because he was running Top Fuel and I was running Comp. We talked for five minutes, and he asked me how my business was going and how I liked the weather, and I finally said, ‘Look, Raymond, I’m a busy guy. I heard you were looking for a driver.’ He said, ‘Well, I was getting around to that.’ He said I could drive the car if I could build the motor because he had a match race the next weekend. So I did, and we took it out the following Saturday and Sunday to Lakeland, and when they strapped me in for the first time, I couldn’t see where I was going because of that big ol’ blower. It didn’t take but a few runs to get used to it.”
Success for the duo came quickly with a win at the 1968 season-opening divisional meet at Phenix Dragway in April en route to the Division 2 championship. A second division title followed in 1970.
“Preston was a helluva driver and a great mechanic, too,” Godman praised. “We used to attend the Gainesville Turkey Trot races every November to have a best-of-three match race against Don Garlits. After Preston beat him on holeshots one time, Garlits pulled me off to the side and asked me, ‘Where’d you get him? That guy is good!’ ”
As Funny Cars began to gain popularity, Godman and Davis expanded their operation to also include a Funny Car, a Woody Gilmore-built Barracuda, and they ran them both at several meets, which proved too much of a burden. “It just about killed us financially, so we just raced Funny Cars only from then on,” recalled Godman.
Rear-engine cars were quickly becoming necessary to compete in Top Fuel, and Davis saw the success that his good friend Clayton Harris was having with Jack McKay’s New Dimension dragster and told Godman they needed to either update to a back-motor car or switch exclusively to Funny Car.
“The real money at that time was in Funny Car with all of the match racing you could do,” said Davis. “Plus, it was just usually me, Raymond, and another guy. We didn’t have the finance or the muscle to campaign two cars, so we stuck with the Funny Car.”
(Above) The duo's second Funny Car was this Mustang, in which Davis rode out a bad fire in 1974 that led him to retire. (Below) The two reunited to compete at the 25th annual U.S. Nationals with this Arrow in 1979.
The beginning of the end
Davis was runner-up to Tom McEwen in Funny Car at the 1972 PRA National Challenge in Tulsa, Okla., and went on to win the Division 2 Funny Car championship in the car later that year. A Mustang later replaced the 'Cuda. A bad fire in Blaney, S.C., in 1974 convinced Davis to quit driving, but he was thankful to have the choice.
“A month before that I was so mad at NHRA because they had changed the rules to require a five-layer Nomex [driving] suit that cost me $600, which was a lot of money back then, but it saved my life. There’s no doubt in my mind," said Davis. "I told Raymond that we needed to get some better parts, but he was happy with the pieces he had.
"It turned out that the O-ring in the back of the fuel pump broke and filled the crankcase with 91 percent [nitro]. Needless to say, when it lit, it really was a bad fire. I believe that the big man upstairs was looking out for me because somehow the front latch of the body released and the body came off. The Mustang was a beautiful car, but for some reason, it was a jinx.
"Finally, I just told Raymond, ‘I think someone is trying to tell me something.’ I put the car back together, ran two more races for him, then retired. Larry LaDue drove the car for him the next four years, but I couldn’t even watch racing on TV, it was too hard. It’s in my blood.” (So much so that years later, Davis is now building himself a 225-inch front-engine nostalgia dragster with a alcohol-fueled 392 to compete at nostalgia events; “My body is 73; my mind is 30,” he insists.)
As a testament to their long friendship and in acknowledgement of his hard work in the pioneering days, Parks insisted that Godman race at the silver anniversary U.S. Nationals in 1979. Godman invited Davis to be his driver. Davis didn’t have a driving suit any more or even a current license, but Godman took care of all of that, and the partners were reunited.
“This was right at the beginning of tire shake, and we didn’t qualify," said Davis."It shook so hard that I couldn’t see where I was going, and it broke the bottom chassis at the firewall and broke the fuel-pump extension. We went to Bristol the next week and to Atlanta the week after that, and then I quit for good."
The rising costs of competition forced Godman also to retire at the end of the 1979 season. After he quit racing, Godman continued to sell insurance for a while – after leaving the service, he’d attended the University of Tennessee to study for his insurance license and opened his own business – then started Godman Hi-Performance In 1977, selling high-performance race car and hot-rod plumbing, where he continues to work every day.
“I don’t have any regrets,” said Godman, who was inducted into Don Garlits’ International Drag Racing Hall of Fame in 1991 and was also a Lifetime Achievement Honoree in 2003 at the inaugural Holley NHRA National Hot Rod Reunion. “I’ve had a very good life, I’ve worked hard, have a good family, tons of friends, and still work every day. I can’t stand sitting around doing nothing. I enjoyed my time in the sport. I always liked race cars and going fast, building a better motor to beat the other guy, and made so many friends.”
(Above) The Bo-Weevil wasn't much to look at when Davis, left, picked it up from Carol Poston and placed it in the back of his pickup, but the end result of the restoration (below), unveiled at the 2013 National Hot Rod Reunion, was stunning.
Davis began restoring some of Godman’s old cars a few years ago, and the '60 Nationals runner-up is the latest. As mentioned earlier, Godman sold it in 1961, and Davis actually drove the now small-block Chevy-powered dragster for its new owner, then bought it and quickly sold it to his friend Carol Poston. After he finished restoring Godman’s Top Fuel car, he began looking for his own Root-chassised dragster, but when current Top Fuel star Clay Millican told him that Poston still owned the Fenn car — “It lay out in the weeds for some 40 years,” according to Godman — Davis had to see it for himself. All that remained was the chassis and the front end, but it was enough to convince Davis it was the real deal and worth salvaging.
“Carol and I were good friends back then, so I asked him, ‘Carol, what would it take for me to get this car?’ and he just gave it to me,” recalled Davis. “I spent a couple of days in Oklahoma with Benny Osborn and came home with a quick change rear end, and I built the motor. We had to get a fiberglass ’27 bucket body; I looked all over for a metal one but couldn’t find one, but I got a fiberglass one from Spirit Industries in Ark., narrowed it down, and made it fit, and had the aluminum nose added. A local boy here did a fantastic job of painting it. I’m really proud of it.”
The car made its redebut at last year’s National Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Ky., and will be on hand, as mentioned, at Indy. As proud as Davis is of the re-creation, he doesn’t want the attention for himself.
“It’s not about me,” Davis insists. “It’s about Raymond and that car. I don’t care if they ever even mention my name. I want Raymond honored for what he has done in his life. He’s the history of drag racing in Memphis; there ain’t no doubt about it. Raymond and I had our ups and downs over the years — it was mostly over money — but he’d get out of that wheelchair and get under that car with me to check the bearings. The man was unbelievable.”
I couldn't agree more. I tip my cap to the man who brought NHRA to the mid-south and to all of the pioneering boosters who helped get us to where we are today.