JET CARS, F/XERS AND ALUMINUM BULLETS DEBUT IN ’62
THE BIG NEWS THIS YEAR WAS THE BEGINNING OF THE END OF THE INFAMOUS FUEL BAN—OR WAS IT? Nobody knew for sure. NHRA’s rulebook continued to list gasoline classes exclusively, its member tracks forbidden from allowing other fuels into official classes and eliminator categories. Booked-in match racing between nitro-burners was strongly discouraged, but tolerated as a necessary evil for NHRA operators forced to compete with the fuelhappy American Hot Rod Association and “outlaw” strips. Both of NHRA’s national events remained gas-only, but rumors circulated that officials met at Indy to consider inviting a small field of fuelers to the next Winternationals as an experiment, while agreeing to keep divisional meets and the nationals allgasoline. When the Greer, Black & Prudhomme fueler showed up on the October cover of Hot Rod— which, like other Petersen magazines and specials, had been nearly nitro-free since 1958 under editorial director Wally Parks—the return of liquid horsepower seemed imminent.
Possibly nobody but Howard Johansen and Mickey Thompson saw all-aluminum racing engines coming. Other than recently banned aircraft power plants, serious drag-race engines had always been based on iron production blocks. Castaluminum aftermarket cylinder heads were still considered luxuries when two of M/T’s Dragmasters showed up at Indy with factory-issued unobtanium reproductions of Pontiac blocks wearing massive Hemi heads obviously adapted from early Chrysler castings. The exotic entries caused major commotion even before Jack Chrisman won Top Eliminator.
Earlier, Mickey and employee Hayden Proffitt made muscle-car history by dropping 434 ci of iron Indian into PMD’s new Tempest compact and dominating the debut of NHRA Factory Experimental at Pomona. Teammate Carol Cox made the most of her acceptance as the first female running a national event by winning the Winternationals S/SA trophy in a Catalina prepared by hubby Lloyd at M/T Enterprises.
Art Arfons, Romeo Palamides and Walt Arfons respectively introduced jet dragsters that instantly became the sport’s biggest attractions and moneymakers, commanding Top Fuel-scale guarantees without the breakage and constant maintenance. NHRA outlawed aircraft-powered exhibition vehicles after March Meet Top Fuel runner-up Glen Leasher fatally crashed Romeo’s LSR car at Bonneville, but the “weenie roasters” never went out of style (and ultimately regained NHRA acceptance in the mid-’70s).
Last but not least, two major performance barriers officially fell near season’s end at San Gabriel, California: Tommy Ivo clocked 7.99 in a fueler (backed up in 8.10 seconds, within the thencustomary 2%), and Doug Cook went 9.96 in a legal gas coupe (10.04 backup). Both marks would be bettered and battered soon enough, as documented in the 1963 clippings that we’ll share next time.
/WHEN extraterrestrial gearheads get serious about hopping up spaceships (note: weed-burner headers), Ed Iskenderian offered to grind their cams. /FAST-CHANGING dragster technology is illustrated by the March Meet’s fuel and gas winners (though neither file photo was shot at Bakersfield). A huge upset saw two Valley kids dominate Top Fuel Eliminator: Little-known Dave Zeuschel and Don Prudhomme took Kent Fuller’s state-of-the-art house car (top) to both Low ET (8.21) and Top Speed (185.36) enroute to a hotly disputed finalround decision of Glen Leasher in Ted Gotelli’s fueler. In Top Gas, old pipe and brute horsepower got the job done for the heavyweight Quincy Automotive Special of John Peters and Nye Frank, not yet rechristened Freight Train.
/THE FIRST threat to Robert E. Petersen’s virtual monopoly on the nation’s newsstands appeared without notice or cover date this winter. Cofounders Gordon Behn and Don Werner, respectively Petersen’s former circulation director and Motor Trend editor, were the first alumni to directly compete, though certainly not the last (as we’ll see in future episodes chronicling the golden age of drag-racing journalism).
/POPULAR HOT RODDING’S (PHR) PREMIER edition unmistakably poked Wally Parks and the NHRA-exclusive Petersen monthlies by stretching to praise a rival sanctioning body. Moreover, the new Argus Publishers Corporation gave widespread exposure to freelance contributor Scotty Fenn, whose criticism of NHRA and Wally, personally, had been mostly seen in Drag News ads and open letters. Dean Brown, founding editor of the hated weekly tabloid, also resurfaced in PHR. War was declared!
/THE BACK cover of Issue 1 boasted an impressive cast of industry veterans.
/INITIAL newsstand sales must’ve been strong, because the second PHR returned that summer, as a monthly—the first periodical to seriously challenge Petersen’s near monopoly. These cover blurbs and bylines reflect an editorial package combining proven elements from HRM, Rod & Custom, Car Craft and Motor Trend. (Ironically, the title was ultimately absorbed and discontinued by The Enthusiast Network, successors to Petersen Publishing Company.)
/ANOTHER sign of weakening fuelban support was this tiny ad placed in the June 9 Drag News by cam grinder Chet Herbert, a leading pump-gas proponent since SoCal strips first outlawed nitro in March 1957. /AS SCOTTY Fenn (far left) crisscrossed the country this June, he’d already lost control of Chassis Research Company back home in L.A. The inventor of the mail-order dragster kit eventually landed at Maryland’s Coleman Brothers Speed Shop before disappearing from an aftermarket industry he’d helped create. Also shown is prolific Rhode Island photojournalist Ed Sarkisian (second from right), who supplied most of the coverage of New England drag racing seen in national publications of the ’50s and ’60s.
/WHEN anyone mentioned national records in the early-’60s, he or she was likely referring to the Standard 1320 list created and maintained by powerful Drag News publisher Doris Herbert. Despite the fuel ban, six different categories of nitro-burners are shown in this Sept. 1 edition.
/PUBLIC criticism of promoters wasn’t limited to Wally Parks and his track operators. Charges of favoritism became increasingly common as more racers toured far from home. Electronic starting systems would soon drastically reduce these disputes. /NOTHING was sacred in Drag News, not even looming nuclear annihilation. A Sept. 12 house ad reminiscent of Mad magazine closely followed the Cuban missile showdown between JFK and Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev (right). Spelling wasn’t sacred, either, as evident in the quote humorously attributed to Fidel Castro (left).
/EARNING a spot on any of Drag News’ gas or fuel Mr. Eliminator Top 10 lists meant more to racers—and their earning potential—than winning almost any open event. Anyone could challenge the Number Two-through-10 spot holders to a best-of-three-round match race, while Number One accepted challenges only from teams currently listed. Vanquished challengers were humiliated in small type after each loss, thus the repeat listings for repeat losers. /AN INDY spectator’s take on AA/Dragster class racing resembles none of the official Indy press coverage we’ve read. The Sept. 22 Drag News letter also illustrates common knowledge of the close relationships among NHRA, Hot Rod magazine and Mickey Thompson.
/NINE-SECOND doorslammers seemed as unlikely as 200-mph dragsters at the start of this season. Mickey Thompson broke the news of Doug Cook’s barrier breakage in a Nov. 3 Drag News hero ad that’s unusual for its early use of color. /NO ONE had to wonder which track was referenced in a shocking Dec. 1 Drag News ad from the man who created Lions Drag Strip in 1955 and, with first wife Judy, developed the model for independent operations. Mickey’s contentious relationship with directors of Long Beach-area Lions Clubs that shared in weekly proceeds boiled over at a board meeting. He resigned on the spot. Thompson’s recommended replacement, C.J. “Pappy” Hart, would take over and enjoy even greater success throughout the end of the decade, as we’ll see in upcoming installments of “Paper Trails.”
/OPPOSITE PAGE. THIS HUGE clue that NHRA’s fuel ban might be ending hit newsstands and mailboxes in October. Fuel cars had virtually vanished from Petersen publications (except in hero ads) since NHRA President Wally Parks expanded the gas-only rule from his single national event, the 1957 Nationals, to all sanctioned strips. Simultaneously and not coincidentally, Wally’s name topped the mastheads of Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Car Craft and Motor Trend as editorial director. Though nitromethane was being burned in record quantities, neither NHRA nor Petersen Publishing Company delivered the illicit substance. Imagine the surprise and confusion when all-powerful HRM devoted a cover story to the feared Greer, Black & Prudhomme fueler. (This and every other HRM issue are viewable online by Platinum members of the Hot Rod Club. Enroll at Hotrodclub.com.)
/“PIT VIEWS,” the letters section of Drag News, gives us great insight into the issues affecting each era. Signatures were optional, as evidenced by this anonymous exchange regarding entry fees and the absence of prize money at Pomona’s second annual “Winter Fiasco.” The identity of “Enthused” remains a mystery, but “Park Swengard” was later revealed to be none other than Wally Parks (See DR Jan. 2017, pg. 20 “Paper Trails, Part 7”). This is the earliest appearance we’ve seen in print of Wally’s pseudonym, which translates backwards as “drag news krap.” (Scans of every Drag News page published from 1955 through 1971 are available in a series of discs available at Wdifl.com.)