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Teen Terrors of the '70s: The Allison Brothers

02 Oct 2015
Phil Burgess, NHRA National Dragster Editor
DRAGSTER Insider
Randy and Gary Allison, circa 1972.

Imagine, if you can, two young brothers with zero nitro-racing experience deciding to try their hand at Top Fuel. It’s not a scenario you can even begin to contemplate today, but back in the late 1960s, it sounded like a pretty good idea to Gary and Randy Allison.

It was late 1968, and Randy was just 16 at the time with only a few months of driving experience in a 10-second, injected, Hemi-powered C/Gas '64 Plymouth that the siblings had put together before Gary, who was four years older, went into the Navy. Growing up in rural Vista, Calif., the brothers had begun driving at a very young age and had fallen in love with the drags from the repeated trips to Pomona.

“We loved the fuel cars,” remembers Randy, now 63, “so we decided to buy a used, front-engine dragster from Ron O’Donnell. We didn’t really know what we were doing, but we did it anyway. We just kind of stepped into the dark. I know that sounds like a pretty big jump, but that’s just the way I’ve always been. I’ve always been a climber, always trying to become more than I am.”

Funny thing is, Randy’s use of the word “we” to describe the purchasing decision is a little generous.

“I didn’t know anything about it at the time,” recalled Gary, now 67, with a laugh when I shared Randy’s version with him. “I was overseas, and all of the sudden I get a box of photos from Randy — with no letter or explanation — of him sitting in this old dragster. It’s a pretty funny story because he saw an ad in National Dragster for the car, some parts, and a trailer and got a cashier’s check and, with one of his high school buddies, went to Ron’s shop in Garden Grove [Calif.]. Now remember, he’s only 16 or 17, so you can imagine that Ron was a little suspicious of all of this and made Randy go to the bank and get cash instead.

“I got really excited about it, and by the time I got home, he already had a firesuit and everything and had started the car — and blown it up, I believe. One of our neighbors was Joe Lee [later of “Smokey Joe” Funny Car fame], and he helped Randy with it. The Lee brothers had a wrecking yard out in the boonies around Vista, and the only road to push-start it was a downhill, winding, rutted road in front of the yard. That had to be quite an experience.”

The Allison team — from left, Dewayne Warriner; Mel, Randy, and Gary Allison; and Sid Waterman — in the winner's circle at Lions Drag Strip.
Randy found himself in the hot seat a lot with their first front-engined dragster.

The Allison family team, which included father Mel, younger brother Fritz, and brother-in-law Dewayne Warriner, were fortunate early on to meet Sid Waterman, famous then as an engine builder and later renowned for his fuel-system expertise, who took them under his wing and coached them along — and later employed them at his shop — showing them how to mix the nitro and pack the parachutes, but the boys pretty much ran the tuning part of the show, which wasn’t always pretty at first.

“I got my license but had to go through a couple of nasty engine blowups and fires,” Randy remembers. “This was late 1969, early 1970, and I was just 17. This was before Jeb [Allen] or even [Fred] Mooneyham [Jr.]. I think I was the only teenager out there running in fuel, but I loved it, and all the older guys treated me real well. I think they all wondered what the heck we were doing, but they were all great to us. They’d drag us along going out to dinner.”

“Back then, you had to run within 10 percent of the national record to get your license,” remembers Gary, “and it seemed like every time we got close to doing that, someone would lower the record. It probably took us a year to get Randy his license, but we learned a lot about how to run and tune the car.”

The switch to rear-engine cars in Top Fuel came none too soon for Randy, who was tired of getting coated in oil and cooked by fire. In 1971, they commissioned Woody Gilmore to build them a new dragster, and Waterman built them a late-model 426 engine, and they were one of the first to run a two-speed transmission, which at the time were primarily used in Funny Cars, and also one of the first to run a high-volume fuel pump. 

(Above) The brothers' first rear-engine car was this Woody Gilmore beauty. Randy burns out at OCIR as Gary runs ahead. (Below) Randy preferred a foot-operated shifter -- to shift from low gear into high, but not the other way -- so after a burnout in high gear, a crewmember had to pop the car back into low for the run using the rod that is visible here below the Halibrand quick-change rear end.
The Allisons' second rear-engine car was highly successful, carrying them to a No. 1 qualifying spot and a semifinal finish in Columbus in 1973.

It was also at this point that Randy committed himself fully to racing, dropping out of junior college when a teacher would not allow him to reschedule a final exam so that he could run at the Bakersfield March Meet. Initially, the brothers stuck close to the West Coast, running Lions Drag Strip, Orange County Int’l Raceway, Irwindale Raceway — all within about an hour’s drive from their home — with occasional ventures north to places like Sacramento Raceway while they learned the ropes.

“We were a pretty good team,” Randy remembers. “Gary was really good with the engine and transmission, and I got pretty good with the injectors and clutch. [John Force actually credits Randy for helping show him how to adjust the clutch back when he was just getting started.] It just clicked for us, and before long, we weren’t blowing up hardly any parts. It was a cool time; you could have a 32-car show right here in Southern California, and we could run against all the heavy hitters.”

The brothers also became so confident in their skills that they often had their own ideas about how their engines should be built (bore and stroke, etc.) and even designed their own camshaft profile to fit their combination.

The new car hauled ass in 1972, as they finished second in the Division 7 Top Fuel standings — just behind perennial king James Warren but ahead of names like Don Moody, Dennis Baca, Bob Noice, and Larry Dixon — and won a number of major match race titles, and the brothers actually held the Lions track record at 6.03 until Moody ran 6.029 at the track’s Last Drag Race in December 1972.

The brothers, who by then were working at Waterman’s shop — Gary in the machine shop and Randy in parts —ordered another Woody car for 1973 with which they planned to tour. Their grandfather loaned them $16,500, which back then was good enough to buy a brand-new car, engine, and trailer — amazing.

While the new equipment was being readied, Randy hopped into T.B. Smallwood’s car for a few races and scored a runner-up at the famed Bakersfield meet behind Dwight Salisbury when their new Milodon engine kicked a rod in the final. The wait for the new car was worth it because the purple charger carried them to the No. 1 qualifying spot at the 1973 Springnationals in Columbus with a low e.t. run of 6.28. On Sunday, Randy defeated world champ Jim Walther and future champ Gary Beck but smoked the tires in the semifinals against John Wiebe, who went on to capture his only NHRA national event win.

A few months later, Randy made another run at a national event title, surprising everyone at the prestigious U.S. Nationals by qualifying No. 17 and upsetting low qualifier Jim Bucher in round one and veteran Vic Brown in round two before falling on a holeshot to fellow WRE employee Carl Olson, 6.09 to 6.06.

Carl Olson, near lane, not only raced against the Allisons at places like Lions but also was their boss when all three worked at Waterman Racing Engines.
The Allisons sold their car to Henry Velasco and Lee Cohon, and Randy drove briefly for them in 1974 before hanging up his helmet.

“Should have won that race,” Randy said matter-of-factly.

Olson remembers the brothers well and fondly from his time at WRE.

“Their dragster was more or less the WRE ‘house car,’ and they ran all of the WRE products on their extremely competitive Woody car," he said. "They were exactly the kinds of young men you wanted to work with: punctual, talented, enthusiastic, and hard-working. 

"I have nothing but the highest regard for both of them. Randy was an excellent driver, and the brothers ran a very ‘buttoned-up’ operation that was a threat to win every time out. I loved racing against them, as there was never any ‘hanky panky’ involved. They were straight-up kinds of racers, just as they were in their employment at the shop. In my position as WRE general manager, I was blessed with all great workers, including Neil Leffler, with whom the Allisons worked very closely and who taught them a lot about machine work."

But, as was the case with a number of drivers in this era, the cost of racing was increasing exponentially, and the sponsors who are so prevalent today were still a few years off. The brothers were trying to fund the operation themselves but just couldn’t.

“We tried to get sponsors — and got close a few times — but it finally became a real financial burden to keep state-of-the-art equipment,” said Randy.

Reluctantly, they sold their hard-running car to Henry Velasco and Lee Cohon, and Randy drove it for a few races in 1974 before hanging up his driving gloves.

   
 Gary (left) and Randy, today

Randy went to work at Race Car Parts (later Russell Industries), where he became general manager. Gary also left Waterman and went to work at Donovan, where, more than 40 years later is still employed today, working as shop foreman. Today, Randy is into real estate development, and while he takes part in some of the lunchtime gatherings of the old guard that take place fairly regularly in Southern California, he keeps his distance from the dragstrip itself. “I just couldn’t go back to the races,” said Randy. “Even today, if I went out there, I’d want to do it again.”

“I’m proud of what we accomplished,” added Gary. “We were competitive in a tough era, but we just loved what we were doing. We have a lot of great memories of those times and made a lot of great friends.”

“I think we did well for what we had,” Randy reflected. “I wish we had been able to stick it out for another year or two and maybe gotten a sponsor. Who knows what else we could have done?”