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.

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