Ed Eaton, one of NHRA’s original division directors, died Nov. 27, from complications of pneumonia. He was 88.
Eaton was one of NHRA founder Wally Parks’ hand-picked regional supervisors in 1959, assigned to the Northeast region, about as physically remote from NHRA’s West Coast headquarters as any other post, but the Long Island native was the perfect pick.
Ed Eaton, left, with NHRA founder Wally Parks
A lifelong hot rodder, he started his own car club, the Long Island Hot Rod Association, after serving in the Navy during World War II and displayed impressive savvy by reaching out to the New York-area media to cover the club's races. Coverage of one of those races ended up getting nationally syndicated and wound up in Life magazine.
Eaton’s prowess caught the eye of Parks and the two corresponded regularly and later met at the 1958 NHRA Nationals in Oklahoma City and Parks subsequently visited Eaton at his Long Island speed shop, where they discussed their respective visions for the future of hot rodding.
Parks named Eaton his first regional director, covering the East Coast from Quebec to Florida and west to Michigan. He proved an invaluable ally in getting the sometimes recalcitrant car clubs to accept and adopt NHRA’s stringent safety regulations.
In 1959, he was promoted to National Competition Director and was the lead official at the NHRA Nationals in Detroit in 1959 and 1960. It was Eaton and his media connections that also convinced ABC Sports to send a Wide World of Sports camera crew to the 1960 event.
As NHRA National Field Director Eaton, left, worked with Division 1 Director Lou Bond, who in 1963 helped develop the starting system that became known as the Christmas Tree
In early 1963, Eaton also had a hand in revolutionizing the sport with the introduction of the Christmas Tree. Working with timing-system specialist Ollie Riley and Division 1 Director Lou Bond, who owned the Dragtronics timing business, they conceived, designed, and created an electronic countdown comprised of five yellow lights, each flashing at half-second intervals before the green would light that would replace the iconic but sometimes fallible human flag starter, a system that would be "Foolproof in design [and provide] an equal start for all.” [Read more]
Eaton left NHRA the following year to manage a chain of dragstrips but remained a force and a guiding hand in the region for years.
“Even after he left NHRA, he always had a bond with Wally,” said Emmalee Eaton, his wife of 44 years. “When they would see each other at a race, it was like they had never left one another. It was amazing.”
Although Eaton retired and moved to Florida 20 years ago, hot rodding never left his life. At the time of his passing he was working on his latest project, a 1940 Hupmobile. Once a hot rodder, always a hot rodder. Ed Eaton will be missed but never forgotten.
“All of us at NHRA are saddened to hear of Ed Eaton’s passing,” said NHRA President Peter Clifford. “His support and promotion of NHRA drag racing helped to shape the foundation of our sport. Our thoughts and prayers are with Ed’s family during this difficult time.”
Eaton is survived by his wife; sons Ed Jr., Mark, and Christopher; and three granddaughters.