FUEL IS BACK, BRIEFLY, AND JETS RUN WILD IN 1963
ENTIRE BOOKS COULD BE WRITTEN ABOUT MULTIPLE 1963 MILESTONES, AND HOPEFULLY THEY WILL BE. In February at Pomona, fuel returned to NHRA for the first time since the 1956 Nationals, if only unofficially and “experimentally.” Immediately afterwards, outgoing Petersen Publishing Co. (PPC) Editorial Director, Wally Parks, expressed buyer’s remorse to his editors: “Due to limited field of Fuelers that appeared for participation in the Winternationals, and the great amount of difficulty a number of them provoked, it is doubtful that NHRA will continue to include these classes at its major events,” began the Feb. 19 internal document. Everyone knows that the unpopular fuel ban remained in force the rest of the season, but nearly no one outside of PPC and NHRA could’ve realized how close we’d come to a fuelless future.
A month later, the stocker world was rocked by GM’s unprecedented support for the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) racing ban that its Pontiac division, in particular, had been circumventing with great success in NASCAR, USAC, NHRA and land-speed racing for five years. Mid-1957, when more than 50 American automakers and suppliers pledged not to directly or indirectly sponsor or support auto racing,
/ABOVE. WE’D BET that Cleveland’s senior citizens are still talking about the ride that Bob Smith took downtown to simultaneously promote the inaugural Drag News Invitational at Dragway 42 and also supply footage for “The Mike Douglas Show.” Smith underestimated his stopping area, locked up the brakes and slid through a blocked-off major intersection, miraculously squeezing between two passing cars. In his coverage of the day, columnist Al Caldwell humorously exaggerated the relative dangers of “Jet Car” Bob’s love life and professional life. In fact, Smith got the ride in late-1962 from owner-builder Romeo Palamides only after Glen Leasher became the first thrust-powered fatality in Romeo’s Bonneville car, Infinity. All three racers plus writer Caldwell came up in the San Francisco Bay area’s wicked dragster wars, second nationwide only to southern California’s weekly scene, despite NorCal’s relatively tiny population base at the time. Ironically, the sole survivor is Jet Car Bob, also the only member of the International Drag Racing Hall of Fame to get his big toe tagged after suffering what attending physicians determined to be lifeending injuries in another Untouchable. Smith recalls that it was his distraught sister’s scream in the operating room that shook him out of the coma.
or even promote performance in advertisements, PMD’s Bunkie Knudsen secretly formed a backdoor network of skunkworks builders, including Mickey Thompson, Smokey Yunick and Ray Nichels. This time, an upper management evidently weary from battling antitrust regulators made clear that no such diversions would be tolerated. The much smaller Chrysler
Corporation and Ford Motor Company were both happy to have their pick of GM’s winners while stoking the factory horse power wars absent expected competition from the world’s largest automaker. Lightweight 426 Dodges and Plymouths and 427 Galaxies and Fairlanes instantly grabbed performance advantages that they would hold until late in the decade.
An inventor named Lew Bond introduced electronic handicapping in 1963, testing his game-changing device in late spring at Maryland’s Capitol Raceway before installing it— along with a multistage countdown device instantly derided as the “Christmas tree”— at Indianapolis Raceway Park for the NHRA Nationals. Five sets of amber floodlights fired a halfsecond apart, regardless of class or eliminator category. Don
Garlits added a particularly sour career distinction by becoming the first foul-start Top Eliminator runner-up determined without human intervention.
Publisher-Editor-Promoter Doris Herbert, arguably the sport’s second most powerful individual and indisputably its most influential female ever, turned promoter for a series of Drag News Invitationals that introduced drag racing’s four-day “weekend” (West Salem, Ohio). Previously, not even the AHRA and NHRA Nationals ran more than three days, weather permitting. At Famoso Drag Strip, the Smokers of Bakersfield conducted the first qualified 32car Top Fuel Eliminator show. Art Malone won it, plus the AHRA Nationals and many high-dollar match races (not to mention qualifying for the Indy 500 in the Granatelli brothers’ backup car, an 8-year-old Novi V-8 roadster).
One book less likely to be written is about the jet cars of 1963. We cannot conclude this installment without honorably mentioning drag racing’s biggest attractions, commanding as much as $1,000 as many days and nights of the week as the handful of two-man teams could dash between tracks. NHRA’s late-season decision to ban the beasts altogether from sanctioned strips only heightened curiosity and demand for three-round matches. Although no fueler could run within a second of a properly tuned weenie roaster, the local hero was usually allowed to “win” their second race, keeping fans buying beer and hot dogs in anticipation of a decisive third match almost always taken by the six-second jet.
The concept of lashing fighterjet engines to non-driven wheels was pioneered by Nathan Ostich, a physician to Los Angeles racers and automotive journalists. One of the latter, Hot Rod Magazine’s Roy Brock, was commissioned in 1957 to build a Bonneville car around engines starting to enter civilian resale channels. The duo did static testing in 1959 and hit the salt in 1960. Simultaneously, L.A. lakes and drag racer Craig Breedlove noticed one at a military-surplus store and quickly calculated that the same 500 bucks he’d budgeted to build another blown flathead for his
’34 Ford could buy 10,000 hp, instead. As we saw in our previous episode, Art Arfons and Romeo Palamides, respectively, brought jets to the quarter-mile during 1962.
By 1963, both dragster veterans had exterminated their new-car bugs and been joined by a second generation of jet jockeys. Romeo’s shop even offered turnkey packages. While up-front costs far exceeded those of assembling a conventional slingshot, the engine was virtually maintenance free. That $25 block plucked from grandma’s wrecked New Yorker needed another grand to acquire the 1,000-hp entry into Top Fuel, and might survive mere seconds. Buying the latest M&H Racemasters or trick heads was no longer necessary, either. Theoretically, any dummy could keep a new or low-hour jet engine alive forever.
Fans of fuelers, stockers and exhibition cars alike agreed that they’d just experienced our sport’s best year yet. Was 1963 also the greatest single season ever? Decide for yourself as “Paper Trails” drives us further into drag racing’s golden age. (Meanwhile, visit Wdifl.com for 1955-71 Drag News on disc, or Hotrodclub.com for digitized issues of Hot Rod Magazine since 1948.)
//Fans of fuelers, stockers and exhibition cars alike agreed that they’d just experienced our sport’s best year yet. Was 1963 also the greatest single season ever? Decide for yourself as ‘Paper Trails’ drives us further into drag racing’s golden age.
/WHEREAS unheralded Don Prudhomme’s 1962 March Meet decision over Glen Leasher and Ted Gotelli was tainted by a controversial jumpstart and restaging, this unprecedented triple seven for new teammates, Tommy Greer and Keith Black, left no doubt that Tommy Ivo’s former tire wiper was the real deal. San Gabriel track reporter Steve Gibbs, the future NHRA competition director, brought the news nationwide in the Jan. 26 Drag News. A gifted writer and illustrator, Gibbs remains involved with NHRA Heritage Series events and sits on the NHRA Museum’s board of directors. /THE FEW photos we’ve seen reveal big turnouts of entries and spectators, along with big crashes. Three dates were advertised in Drag News for January and February. The main obstacle seemed to be the wall located just beyond the finish line. In each lane, the driver aimed through an opening not much wider than a full-sized car.
/THIS MAY BE the most sheepish-looking team ever to win a major event, with good reason. Engine-builder John Peters was listed as driver, but never got closer to the seat than laying a hand awkwardly onto the roll bar of the Top Gas dragster co-owned with Nye Frank (far right). The guy with the trophy was the roommate of mysterious Bob Muravez (center), whose family business forbade drag racing. NHRA and the dragracing media protected their secret, but the discomfort resulting from a breakthrough
Winternationals win led the youngsters to seek a pseudonym, which Steve
Gibbs (the aforementioned San
Gabriel official) soon provided, lifting the author’s name from a college textbook: Floyd
Lippencott Jr. Fifty-two years later, he was inducted into the
Racing Hall of Fame as both Bob and Floyd
(class of 2015). To this day, Muravez runs the
Burbank Maytag distributorship founded by his infamously intolerant father. /THE HAND-BUILT factory hot rods that put the extra “super” in Super Stock were Fords, Dodges and Plymouths, plus about 20 Tempests built before GM shut down its skunkworks program early this year. Thus did so many Pontiac and Chevrolet heroes abandon ship this same season.
/AFTER FIVE YEARS without fuel cars in Petersen magazines, and NHRA’s ban still in force, imagine the surprise when this cover hit mailboxes and newsstands. Moreover, pump gas remained mandatory for all “official” NHRA competition, despite Pomona’s experiment. /WE HAVEN’T seen much of CC in this series simply because its competition content still consisted mostly of hyping NHRA's two national events. Stay tuned as CC gradually evolves into what many consider the best drag mag ever. /ONLY IN L..A. could we see Prudhomme, Ivo and “The Beverly Hillbillies” cast. The only thing left out by San Gabe publicist
Steve Gibbs was an event date (d’oh!).
/RIGHT. DOWNTOWN Cleveland’s wild Drag News Invitational promotion co-featured Joe
Schubeck’s blown fueler, which ran before the Untouchable. Doris
Herbert rewarded Miss Invitational with a large studio shot in the subsequent issue, describing Cree
Franqito as a Cleveland native displacing 44-23-35 inches. (You think those guys in the background noticed?) The West Salem, Ohio, event is believed to be the sport’s first four-day meet.
/BELOW. NO MERE comic book, Drag Cartoons expertly captured the era’s hero racers, “desperate promoters” and industry heavies as recognizable comic-strip characters (though we can’t positively ID this fellow). One tabloid-newsprint edition preceded this slick version. /RIGHT. YOU KNOW how photos of Mickey Thompson frequently show bandages, plaster cast, braces or crutches? Here he’s flying 6 feet off of the ground on land adjacent to Lions Drag Strip, which he and wife Judy managed from 1955 until the end of this year.
/MILLAR’S unique combination of artistic talent, drafting experience, hands-on wrenching, and street and legal racing produced a comic book seriously respected by racers, fans, officials and manufacturers. (See for yourself at Laffyerasphalt.com, the tribute site and e-store maintained by his widow, Orah Mae, and daughter, Robin.) /PUBLISHER-EDITOR-ARTIST
Pete Millar regularly skewered both AHRA and NHRA, but the leader of drag racing’s largest sanctioning body was perhaps his most frequent target. Shown are the first and last panels of a longer strip in the first magazine. Tech officials swarmed the poor kid’s coupe, attempting to pressure him into joining up. They failed, but so did the poor guy’s Ford tranny. He winds up trading his soul for an irresistible synchro box.
/LEFT. IN ITS second year, Popular Hot Rodding continued serving up fuelers and other content absent from Petersen titles under the reign of Editorial Director Wally Parks. Imagine Wally’s dismay when bankrupt chassis-builder Scotty Fenn, his loudest critic, resurfaced as tech editor and columnist.
/BELOW. SOCAL was still home to the majority of Indycar builders, as well as the center of drag racing’s universe. Manufacturer Ed Donovan merged those disparate worlds with a blown-Offy slingshot that could outrun most Top Gas dragsters and many Top Fuelers. /PENNSYLVANIA’S York U.S. 30 Dragway was as significant to stockers as Famoso Drag Strip was to fuelers. On Sept. 14, Gas Ronda, on his first eastern tour, was the star attraction. The dapper L.A. Ford salesman (and former dance instructor) came through with a huge match-race win over Malcolm Durham (far end), Frank La Palomery’s L&L Special and Fred Specio’s Thundercharger, respectively, clocking 12.21 at 117. R.F. Bissell shot the classic Drag News cover photo.
/THE WEEKLY “DRAG SPORT ILLUSTRATED,” introduced in March at Bakersfield, was the first serious challenger to Doris Herbert's 8-year-old Drag News. Comparatively light on reportage and pages, the newcomer’s advantages were better paper, modern graphics and big, bitchin’ action photos. The reproduction differences were especially obvious whenever both tabloids printed the same photo, as was the case with Bob Hardee’s shot of Jerry Baltes at Ramona, California. We’ll be seeing many more examples in the next few installments of “Paper Trails.”
/IT’S TRUE: In 1963, a couple of college kids, living at home and working out of a twocar family garage, could still dream of lining up against the mighty Stone, Woods & Cook Willys—and winning. Ed Iskenderian took full advantage in the Dec. 7 Drag News and made heroes of young Gary and Jerry Mallicoat. Although Engle Cams isn’t mentioned in Fred Stone’s responses of Dec. 14 and 21, Jack Engle’s style is unmistakable in the text. Hang on tight, the Gasser Wars are heating up!