Part 1: Behind the scenes at the 1955 NHRA Drag Safari.
A funny thing happened on the way to launching this series. All along, we envisioned a year-by-year reconstruction of what Robert E. Petersen’s photojournalists saw and did on their way to visiting the people, places, and things that readers experienced vicariously and exclusively in Pete’s monthly magazines. How many young lives in the Northeast and Midwest and Canada were uprooted by one too many midwinter photos of palm trees and fenderless, topless hot rods and weekly fuel shows—at night, yet—out west? How about impressionable kids whose first peeks inside Motor City inspired a career move north? Who among us, whatever the era, didn’t envy such a wet-dream job? One couldn’t help but wonder what life was really like behind the scenes for these lucky guys—yeah, staffers were invariably men in the beginning—roaming North America, their boxy cameras and press passes greasing access to everything automotive.
More than a decade before Buzz and Tod set sail on Route 66, Petersen’s first full-time photographer started teasing us with irresistible American scenery, both natural and mechanical. Most
significantly, Eric Rickman was imbedded with the NHRA Drag Safaris that standardized classifications and safety standards while striving to legitimize not only drag racers, but all hot rodders of the mid-’50s. Wally Parks, simultaneously HOT ROD’S editor and NHRA’S president, often said that in public perception, hot rodders were the gangbangers of the era.
Adding to Wally’s challenge this second year was plain crappy timing. His Safari was setting up in Denver on June 11, 1955, when more than 80 people perished in a fiery Le Mans crash captured on motion-picture film and viewed worldwide. Auto racing was suddenly scrutinized by governments as never before, and never since. Fearing Congressional intervention, automakers and suppliers comprising the Automobile Manufacturers Association started negotiating the end of direct support for auto racing and advertising that promoted performance. Suddenly, racing sponsorships were toxic to big business. Among the casualties would be the traveling NHRA program, despite delivering three seasons of consistently positive press to its sponsor. Wally even changed the name from Drag to Safety Safari for 1956, yet the Socony Mobil Co. shut off the petroleum
products and political clout that fueled the program. After presenting about three dozen events across at least 25 states, cashstrapped NHRA reluctantly disbanded the team just weeks before the infamous AMA ban took effect on July 1, 1957.
Fortunately for us, Bob Petersen’s timing was better. By donating office space to the fledgling NHRA and paying Eric Rickman’s salary and expenses while he accompanied NHRA’S three-man crew, the publisher ensured that his magazines obtained exclusive, quality event coverage that could not be reliably expected from local sources at every Safari stop. Moreover, by instructing photographic director Bob D’olivo back home to retain and catalog all film shot by Petersen staffers starting in March 1955, Pete ensured that complete documentation of the second and final Safaris would be preserved whenever his editorial descendants came looking for nuggets that may not have shown up in the limited space available at the time (HRM averaged 68 total pages). This new series is devoted to such nuggets.
Editor Hardin and his freelance contributor enjoy the further
good fortune of long relationships with the sole surviving Safarian. Chic Cannon, 89, was the hands-on hot rodder who handled event organization and safety the first two years. “The Drag Safari changed my life,” he told us. “It was a lot of work. It was a lot of fun. We were all in our 20s, single, carefree. Married men didn’t last long out there. After a couple of weeks, their wives would tell them to get home, and that was the end of that. We went through a few before the core group came together to finish the ’54 tour. We stayed together for the full ’55 series. I think I went for room and board that first year. NHRA didn’t have any money then. Bud Coons was NHRA’S only full-time employee. Rickman would record comments and results on reel-to-reel tape and mail it home to L.A., where Wally would write the stories for HOT ROD. They sent the same two tape reels back and forth because NHRA couldn’t afford to buy more. The Safaris just about broke Wally, but he didn’t give up. Pete had a lot to do with it. He really wanted to help Wally, to see him succeed.”
Indeed, Petersen’s Trend Publishers, Inc., paid Wally’s and Rick’s salaries; covered the latter’s travel expenses through three Safari summers; and donated office space and services on prestigious Hollywood Boulevard. NHRA literally owed its existence to the company for publishing a made-up letter in 1951 from
a nonexistent HRM reader (“Bob Cameron, Jr.”) suggesting formation of a national association of hot rodders. Wally’s membership checks were mailed to the same building as Pete’s subscription renewals. That combination of two savvy, driven, ballsy visionaries proved mutually beneficial for nearly a halfcentury, until Petersen sold this publishing company and Parks retired from NHRA.
Now, 11 years after the friends passed away six months apart, their joint effort continues paying dividends in a publication that neither lived quite long enough to see debut (2008). Their imbedded photographer’s exclusive views of the game-changing 1955 Drag Safari—as seen on both ends of his viewfinder in archive photos—hereby launch the kind of historical series that only HOT ROD Deluxe delivers. Subsequent installments will bring us behind the scenes of rodding and racing chronologically, through the rest of the 1950s and deep into the ’60s. Your eyes will be the first to enjoy images that went unpublished and unseen since space-constrained editors sentenced more than three million black-and-white outtakes to Photo Limbo. Their trash becomes our treasure in Backstage Past.
> As if building a track from scratch wasn’t enough of a distraction, here’s a scene right out of those teenexploitation “B” movies. One of these serious-looking locals evidently selected Kansas City’s prerace luncheon and film screening (note metal canister with NHRA decal, lower left) to confront spokesman Coons with something titled FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin. Considering hot rodders’ rocky relationship with the establishment and the previous month’s Le Mans tragedy, we’re guessing that the do-gooders weren’t doing drag racers any favors.
> Left: Two frames labeled “Indianapolis” with seemingly nothing else in common sent us down separate rabbit holes of research that intersected on this very patch of Stout Field. Micheal Rickman has a distant memory from youth of his dad tumbling from some flimsy timing tower in the Midwest, “trying to get one of his elevated shots.” Chic Cannon remembered that Rick waited out the rest of the day in pain rather than take away the ambulance and shut down racing. We’re just glad that before he crashed, Rick got such a great shot of the rare Kurtis 500S that trophied in A/sport at 99.11 mph—a speed not far below dragster numbers. Interwebs investigation revealed that owner-driver Jack Ensley had run the Cad-powered roadster in the last two Carrera Panamericanas and won SCCA’S 1954 B-modified national championship. He also drove at Indy from 1958 through 1962, failing to qualify all five years. He continued racing sports cars until a year before his 1972 death. There’s a Shelby connection, too: “In 1958, my Indy car was back in California, getting ready, and I took my driving test in Jack Ensley’s roadster,” Shelby told the Los Angeles Times’ Shav Glick in 1987, “but chief steward Harlan Fengler told me that two people couldn’t take the test in the same car. There wasn’t anything in the rule book about it, but Fengler had a hard nose against road racers and what he said went. I didn’t want to get into a beef—it wasn’t worth the effort—so I packed up and went to Belgium and drove in the Grand Prix.” Shelby never drove the Brickyard again, except when pal Lee Iacocca tabbed him to lead the Indy 500 field in 1987’s Chrysler Lebaron convertible pace car.
> NHRA’S three costconscious officials shared single motel rooms and were often joined by photographer Rickman, who enjoyed a Trend expense account. A film defect in the upper-left corner is possibly the reason we’ve never seen such a rare, relaxed...
> We have to wonder how an exhausted crew responsible for conducting new events in new places— often from scratch—on 17 successive weekends found time for courting local talent, but boys will be boys. These extracurricular activities evidently occurred...
> We like everything in this photo from Deer Park, but know nothin’ about nothin’—starting with whether Rickman luckily stumbled onto such a classic scene or posed the ladies just so. (Help, Northwestern readers?)
> Stop Number Four was Deer Park, Washington, about 75 miles below the Canadian border. Sturdy lads from the hosting Inland Empire Timing Association positioned their portable timing tower.
> At the conclusion of the first Drag Safari, Chic Cannon (left) became the third NHRA employee in late 1954, following Bud Coons (right) and assistant Billie Ramsey. Association headquarters consisted of this Hollywood Blvd. office inside Trend Inc....
> We can’t say whether Bud Coons’ tool kit contained a real revolver (right), but we know that the ex-cop helped persuade missileengineer Ollie Riley to design a portable, modular mileper-hour timer for the Safari that enabled replacement of individual...
> The second Drag Safari launched May 15 at Colton (California) Drag Strip, a runway of Morrow Field, after which NHRA’S four-man crew got their only weekend off until October. The Argonaut Club Timing Association, part of a businessmen’s service...
> The Shasta Roadsters hosted the second tour stop at Redding, California. NHRA’S Viking trailer transported a complete, portable, quarter-mile dragstrip, trophies, and the crew’s luggage. Once unloaded, it served as control center. Lakes-racer Doug...
> “After setting top time of 121.8, Leblanc dragster spun out, folded like a paper bag,” read HRM’S Redding coverage (Aug. ’55). Leo Leblanc reportedly walked away from what remains of his Black Widow.
> Here’s how Northeastern hot rodders responded to their first chance to make side-by-side runs at Convair Field in Allentown, Pennsylvania. In his unsigned event coverage, editor Parks uncharacteristically conceded that the large turnouts of people...
> On his way to winning Top Eliminator at Denver, Jack Moss (far lane) edged Joe Kelly in the 1,040-lb. Kenz & Leslie flathead rail. Moss’ Red Ram Hemi later hit 120.00, but Kelly claimed overall Top Time and a strip record of 122.28 mph (Sept. ’55 HRM).
> Along with free Mobilgas along the route, the oil company sponsored get-togethers with local dignitaries and law enforcement. This Sioux City, Iowa, lunch meeting was scheduled the day before the seventh Safari meet (Oct. ’55 HRM).
> Someone surprised Rickman and Evans with Rick’s own camera. The unseen second bed likely contained Chic Cannon and Bud Coons, who bunked together nearly every night for four months.