PAPER TRAILS, PART 15
Drag Racing’s Exposure Explodes in Early 1966
THE UNPRECEDENTED VARIETY AND NUMBER OF RACE CARS, EXHIBITION VEHICLES AND EVEN DRAG BIKES MADE 1966 THE MOST INTERESTING, MOST ADDICTING SEASON YET. Just ask anyone who ever cheered a local hero’s crudely converted door car as it challenged some state-of-the-art “plastic fantastic” that burned nitro and was lighter by half a ton.
Automakers battled with buckets of cash and free bullets in everything from fuel dragsters and flip-top Comets to hand-built legal “stockers” and a 33-yearold Willys gasser in Dayton, Ohio. In a single weekend, March Meet spectators witnessed a 64-car Top Fuel Eliminator one day and a separate, 32-car show the next— concluding with a showdown between the daily winners. A little more than two years after a reskinned Pontiac Tempest and a rebodied Ford Falcon made newcar customers out of teenagers, those GTOs and Mustangs were joined by muscle and pony cars of all makes at approximately 300 U.S. drag strips.
Accordingly, hot rodding’s publishing industry turned new attention and pages to race cars this year, targeting millions of Baby Boomers and the advertisers chasing them. Established general-interest publishers, including Petersen and Argus, were also reacting to a whole crop of small, specialized, lowbudget titles devoted entirely or mostly to drag racing, which were conveniently on sale on the same news racks for the same 50 cents. Sample covers of some, but not all, of those upstarts are reproduced on these pages. All but one was produced in the Los Angeles area, supporting a unique cottage industry of salaried and freelance writers, photographers, editors, graphic artists, chicken blowers (i.e., ad reps shamelessly pumping up sales numbers) and administrative types dependent upon hot-rodding and, more than ever, drag racing.
Not all publishers prospered, however. The initial losers in this media explosion, ironically, were two of the three independent tabloids wholly dedicated to drag racing years before the young sport became fashionable for slick monthlies. This first half of 1966 proved to be the last time that Drag News (established 1955), Drag Sport Illustrated (est. 1963) and Drag World (est. 1965) operated simultaneously and independently. We’ll explore what happened to these pioneer publishers next time, when Drag Racer revisits drag rags and mags dated July through December 1966.
While short-lived, Drag Sport Illustrated is still celebrated for some of the finest black-and-white action covers ever printed, publisher-editor Phil Bellomy uncharacteristically settled for a single run and what appears to be a strip of white paper physically overlaid onto the halftone. Drag News was even worse: Powerful publisher Doris Herbert lived down to her reputation for cheap production with a clumsy cut-out of a generic photo on a quarter-fold cover.
Placement of the adjacent house ad might indicate a rare failure by salesman Don Rackemann to find a premium-rate buyer for the back cover of possibly the most-read issue all year. [Author’s note about mailing labels: Decades ago, subscribers Bob Thompson and the late Bruce Boyd each generously donated many back issues of weekly drag rags for the expressed purpose of providing research material for historical articles like this one. —DW]
The post-Bakersfield (Mar.
11) edition of Drag World offered artist’s conceptions of the
Piranha, which the model-car company tried booking as a
Funny Car. Nobody ever bought that—including promoters and match racers—but the
392-powered, 120-inch lightweight proved to be one of the quickest, fastest and most successful backmotored fuel cars yet built, legitimately topping
190 mph with both Walt
Stevens and Connie Swingle bravely steering. Almost nobody bought the AMT street version that the race car was promoting, although one Corvairpowered Piranha appeared in some 1966-67 episodes of TV’s “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” series. Contrary to this early press release, the project went not to Dick Branstner but to a new AMT Speed & Custom Division staffed by director Gene Winfield, Stevens, ex-Dodge Chargers shoe Jim Johnson and ex-Dead End Kid Joe Anahory, who built and tuned the Chrysler.
Besides publishing his monthly comic book, campaigning a blown Competition Coupe and raising three daughters with wife Orah Mae, multitalented
Pete Millar presided over a one-man organization he called the National Association for the Advancement of Flatheads. Ironically, Millar himself had by now switched to a despised late-model V-8, accepting Ed Iskenderian’s offer to trade a 260-inch Ford dyno mule for advertising artwork.
“The Automotive Go & Show Magazine” has surely had more different taglines than any other automotive publication. Bob Petersen cleverly positioned Car Craft between Rod & Custom and
Hot Rod in the hope of holding onto teenagers transitioning into drivers and first-car owners. A rare all-drag-racing cover proved to be an early indicator of the magazine’s gradual evolution into “Drag Racing’s Complete Magazine” of the ’70s.
How hairy did early exhibition cars get? Consider the dual-engined, fuel-burning Hurst Hairy Oldsmobiles of 1966-67. Former dragster star Joe Schubeck was coaxed out of retirement this year to tour the original, from which he ejected through the driver’s door, at speed, after one motor car caught fire. The 442 continued beyond the shutdown area into a farmer’s field, where it burned to the ground. Gentleman Joe also drove a near identical, equally scary replacement before hanging up his fireresistant tuxedo for good.
Just as Popular Hot Rodding had copied Hot Rod in 1962, Modern Rod (sister title to Drag
Racing mag) started out as a PHR imitator, to the point of immodestly—and inaccurately— proclaiming itself to be the “No. 2 hot rod magazine” on covers. The May issue’s sudden format and title changes evidenced the interest that fast doorslammers now commanded within the hot-rodding hobby and industry.
No other periodical published outside of Southern California had the impact or long-term success of this one. Conceived by nightclub-operator Monk Reynolds and racer-adman Jim Davis in the door-car hotbed spanning both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line,
Super Stock put the East Coast on the magazine rack. Moreover, it served as the development league for eastern writers, editors and photographers bound for the big West Coast titles (e.g., future PPC staffers John Raffa, Jim McCraw, Ro McGonegal and Neil Britt).
PHR was the flagship of nitro-friendly Argus Publishers Corp., founded by former Petersen employees just as NHRA’s infamous fuel ban was falling apart. An all-inclusive format was loosely patterned on Hot Rod’s formula, though this cover illustrates...
RIGHT. The Petersen monthly that targeted young teenagers with model cars, doodlebugs, go-karts and slot cars must’ve confused the kids by devoting this cover to a drag car—a foreign car, at that. Allowing imports into gas classes was giving NHRA...
RIGHT. The annual Drag Racing Almanac was the first publication to combine a previous season’s statistics, results and photos that represented all sanctioning bodies and racers’ organizations, plus major independent events. For this debut...
ABOVE. Entering its third year, L.A.-based Drag Racing continued prioritizing dragsters and was the far-and-away favorite monthly of wire-wheel fans.
LEFT & RIGHT. As good as Drag World consistently was, the youngest L.A. weekly couldn’t compete for limited ad dollars with Drag News and NHRA’s National Dragster.A marked-up Jan. 21, 1966, issue in the author’s collection indicates founding...
Yes, your reporter makes regular use of a hardbound book published by Trident Press. As might be expected of NHRA’s cofounder and longtime president, this is more a rose-colored account of that organization’s experience than a fair history of a sport...