Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Odd as it may seem, there are occasional visitors to this site with no interest or knowledge of hot rodding or motorsports. Besides the usual FBI, IRS, FCC and CIA agents, some of my non-car friends like to drop in and browse, too. They claim to enjoy the SGE experience in general, but are baffled at some of the references and terminology bandied about, whether in proper nomenclature or street jive. Since drag racing is a common thread running through this blog and the hobby in general, here's a quick-start guide for the newcomer. It doubles as a humbler to you know-it-alls out there. 



RACE: First one to the finish line wins. Just before the U.S. entered World War II, Pete Henderson competed against a race horse in Pasadena, California for a $300 purse in the first documented example of drag racing (technically a street race) that I know of. Henderson's '32 Ford V-8 roadster took a wicked hole shot from the horse, but caught it (just barely) at the finish, "two telephone poles" away, according to hot rod pioneer Ak Miller. From this car versus horse pairing, drag racing evolved in two parallel lanes...

A. Production cars (or "door slammers") appealed to budget minded racers like California's Benders car club. Fans easily related to them, as most drove similar cars to the races.

2. Dick Kraft stripped his Model T (and himself) down to the rails and helped introduce the "dragster" classes (also known as "rail jobs" for obvious reasons). Fans found them exotic and exciting.

In both disciplines, power-to-weight ratio dictated quickness and speed. Each camp naturally scattered into various sub-niches, but production-based door slammers and dedicated dragsters generally defined the opposing ends of drag racing's class structure and appeal. Fans could drive their commuter cars to glory in entry level classes, partner up with friends to enter a dragster in the sport's top class, or find their comfort zone in a vast middle ground. The fun, at every level, was accessible to all. The original intent of taking deadly street racing to a safe, legal, and controlled environment was beautifully realized and even produced a supporting culture that swept the nation. Uninterested citizens, passionate racers and race fans alike were well served, and the legalization of drag racing was deemed a successful experiment by all parties. America's prominent sanctioning body, then and now, was the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), founded and operated by Wallace Parks as a non-profit organisation.

Ten short years later, both door slammers and dragsters had evolved to a high level of sophistication. Few realized it at this stage, but we were enjoying what would be known as drag racing's Golden Era. For a brief but glorious moment (now known as The Climax Of The Golden Era), drag racing's purity of intent reached its zenith. No one complained about The Clean Up After The Climax of the Golden Era. But behind closed doors, the NHRA was indulging in an orgy of incestual decadence with Detroit's auto manufacturing magnates. The ensuing pregnancy produced an evil bastard child that defied repeated exorcism attempts by racers, fans and media.

That Golden Era enticed a deluge of paying customers through the gates, and profiteers smelled the money from high up in the towers of commerce. When it came to money, sanctioning bodies and most event promoters took a "The More The Merrier" stance. This historical image captured the first ever Miss Winston: Gonzo announcer and innovative track manager, Berserko Bob Doerrer. The backlash to corporate involvement in drag racing was immediate and universal - except for a few well-positioned racers and some "non-profit" sanctioning body executives who stood to profit handily from the profiteers. 

The spectacle was morbidly fascinating, the implications, ominous. This is how it all ended. When door slammers and dragsters morphed into the Funny Car, corporate signage took priority over innovation, accessibility, and all else. In the remaining lower classes, "indexes", "dial-ins" and "breakouts" replaced heads-up racing as stop-gap measures, leaving the remaining fans baffled and frustrated. Within 18 months, drag racing was extinct, but for the corporate players and a handful of hardcore independent holdouts who soon paid for their loyalty with bankruptcy and divorce. From this moment forward, street racing became a more widespread epidemic than ever, with an ever-escalating body count littering America's roadways with human hamburger and clogging her jails with aspiring young mechanics, engineers and designers. But an apathetic public can't see any difference between organized drag racing and free-form street racing. They're also wary of sanctioning body executives known only via mugshots above scandalous headlines. They just want all of this noise to go away. And so it shall be.  (Photos found Online)

                                                                       THE END


Mind you, the above was written by a person perceived as a naive Pollyanna with an Opie Taylor enthusiasm for Forrest Gump providence. At least that's how I feel around my fellow motorsports journalists - cynics, one and all. I'm a sitting duck in that murky little pond. But even I can't help but feel anguish at what my beloved sport turned into, considering where it came from, the promise it held, and the glory it realized for a fleeting moment before it choked on its own greed and became a national embarrassment on par with philandering politicians and crooked investment bankers.

Bitter? You bet your ass I'm bitter - scorned by the one I loved and defended in the face of my own peer group. Worst of all, I still support her! I continue to worship at the altar of acceleration in person, read and write about it, even watch it on TV - desperately hoping to glimpse some promise that the NHRA might somehow redeem itself, or some surprise savior might step forward with a revolutionary new greed-proof approach to drag racing. The nostalgia drag racing movement got me excited and hopeful, until the first millionaire showed up - about five minutes after the concept was implemented. Alas, the only solution seems to be digital electronics: A strictly computer controlled organization, managing pairs of over-amped robots flashing down the track. With no human involvement whatsoever, there just might be a chance of true parity in drag racing. As long as human passions, egos, intellects, and spirits are involved, I'm afraid it's hopeless.

Drag race figurehead Big Daddy Don Garlits is looking to electrons to power the sport through the stench of stagnancy. Note that this design provides a space for the driver though. Uh oh... (Photo courtesy of Garlits.com)



In the environment I was hatched in, roosters strutted around huffing and puffing, while the hens took care of business. Raising children, paying bills and putting out fires in the wake of said roosters was deemed women's work, as the men were way too busy with ego gratification and fearfully protecting their hardass images at all costs. It didn't seem fair to my childish sensibilities, until I hit my first drag race and realized this posturing was considered "normal behavior". Imagine my relief. Still, I could barely stifle my jubilance when I heard of the occasional female putting a rooster on the trailer. I kept my celebrations to myself in those days (Survival Skills 101), but now it's safe to admit my respect and outright adoration of...

Peggy Hart. She produced newsletters and sent them to GIs during the war to keep racers up-to-date on dry lakes developments. When she and husband/business partner "Pappy" Hart later opened Santa Ana Drag Strip, Peggy drove her rail job to the track, whipped the big dogs, and drove it back home, regularly (note radiator hose at far right - for street duty). This shot is from 1952.

Barbara Hamilton. Gassers were my favorites, right off the bat. And Hamilton's accomplishments were big news to me when I discovered her (sadly, not until the mid '70s. She was a well kept secret). Barb and partner Nancy Leonello did their own wrenching, toured the match race circuit, and also did very well in NHRA national event competition. 

Shirley Shahan. A regular at Winner's Circles with her "Drag-on-Lady" doorslammers, tuned by husband H.L. His Detroit connections garnered Shirley more ink than most female racers, which may have ruffled some feathers. The Shahans won in everything from Studebakers to Chevys, Mopars and AMCs.

Carol "Bunny" Burkett. She took the "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em" route to stardom in the sexist age. She played up the Blondshell imagery to snag ink and the ensuing bookings, but delivered hardballs at the track. She even acquiesced to the "Cotton Pony" nickname on her cars. Burkett paid extra for her attractiveness with an unending stream of lame come-ons.

Della Woods. The Funny Car pioneer  partnered with brother Bernie to campaign their "Bernella" brand entries, exemplified by the "Funny Honey" Charger. When Roger Lindamood, Don Garlits and Don Kohler signed-off on her competition license, the NHRA revoked it, claiming, "It's too dangerous for a woman to drive in that class." Woods countered by demanding NHRA rescind all female licenses (there were many female racers, just not many famous ones). The resulting uproar quickly called NHRA's bluff, and Woods hit the circuit within a week. (Photos found Online)

These examples spotlight only a few highly successful female racers, who found fame in the most popular classes, where the media could easily find them. There were (and continue to be) many more unsung overachieving women competitors who's impact sadly remains local, or regional at best. I like to believe all of these pioneering women (famous and obscure alike) laid the groundwork for the female stars of the moment, such as Melanie Troxel, Erica Enders-Stevens, Karen Stoffer, Leah Pruett, Alexis DeJoria, Katie Sullivan, and the Force sisters. If a single example of this phenomenon must be chosen to represent all of the above, you couldn't do better than the woman dubbed "Cha Cha" by her competitors, who ultimately jammed that moniker up the ass of every arrogant male who ever uttered it, from anonymous street racers to Don Garlits himself.


Today, we consider John Force to be drag racing's greatest superstar. With fifteen World Championships to his credit, the charismatic former log truck driver is indisputably the most successful. But chronologically, he's a Johnny-come-lately. (Photo by Cole Coonce)

The first quarter miler to be awarded true superstar status was "Big Daddy" Don Garlits, AKA "Swamp Rat" (seen here on tour in England in the mid-'60s). The Seffner, Florida upstart was claiming speeds and times doubted by California's ruling clique. They challenged him to tow west and prove himself. He did, and became a never-say-die sensation of competition and innovation. Sixty-plus years later, he's still the face of drag racing. (Photo courtesy of Garlits.com)

Then there's Shirley. The scrappy street racer from upstate New York had to muscle her way onto the drag strip (see the biographical Heart Like a Wheel film for a Cliff Notes version), but when she finally elbowed enough blowhards out of her way, the whole world seemed to be waiting for Shirley Muldowney. Her outspoken No Bullshit persona struck a major chord with the public, and her winning ways eventually earned the respect of fellow racers, no matter what genitalia they packed. This '63 Corvette is the one that some poor loser lettered "Cha Cha" with white shoe polish. That's all the motivation she needed to rule the world.

Much to the delight of Shirley's fans and the media, no one despised losing to Shirley more than "Donald". Their over-hyped animosity instantly vaulted Shirley to equal status with Big Daddy, to his utter dismay ("Doh!"). Sworn enemies on the track, they shared a mutual off-track respect that endures today, along with the backhanded compliments and outright put downs. They've both always been well aware of the benefits offered by such rivalry and neither are above capitalizing on it.

Like with Garlits (who once rode his name recognition to a congressional bid), Shirley's fame has delivered her to places otherwise inaccessible. Rubbing elbows with fellow reclusive celebs is one nice fringe benefit of sacrificing your own privacy (to bloggers like me).

To this day, when Shirley talks, people listen. Her announcement of a return to (Nostalgia) Funny Car in 2014 sent tremors, followed by this aftershock: Shirley will also shoe a streamliner at Bonneville, shooting at a 500 MPH target. 2014 can't get here fast enough for a lot of people.

Shirley's advice to aspiring female drag racers, circa 1965. She may not have followed it all herself, but it's still sound advice. (Photos courtesy of Muldowney.com)


As for that Garlits guy, at least half of his legend is due to mechanical innovation, and he isn't done yet.

The artwork shown above on this post is for real. Swamp Rat 37 will employ electric power. Garlits has already made test runs, captured here for your consideration. 

As of this writing, the latest news on the project is this carbon fiber body. I, for one, am thrilled at the prospect of wheel pants coming back into style. Really. (photos courtesy of Garlits.com)


Obviously, what's left of drag racing will continue to evolve for the best or worst, with or without my smeared stamp of approval. And though I may seem sour on this particular post, rest assured - as long as there are drag strips, I'll continue to seek them out. You'll still find me loitering in the pits, investing in hot dog stands, and lugging photography equipment up and down the quarter mile with a notebook in my back pocket. As for you, your assignment is to support your local drag strip and report on what inspires and repels you about the experience. Final exams will commence at season's end. Until then, class is dismissed.




At high noon on Sunday, hot rod novelist Lori Bentley Law faced the Motor Mouth Radio hosts, live on the air. She was downright sparkly, sharing insight into her writing, as well as her noted automotive and motorcycle hijinks. Recommended listening for anyone with an interest in nuts, bolts, and the human condition. A recording of the highly anticipated showdown can be found on the show's home page at www.motormouthradio.com. PARENTAL WARNING: The first half-hour of this one hour show is devoted to an in-depth discussion of the brake pedal ratio on Motormouth Ray's GTO. Fascinating information, if you happen to be pondering the correct pedal ratio of your mid '60s GM project. (Geek note to the Motormouths: Master cylinder bore diameter [not pedal ratio] dictates brake line pressure - especially on non-power brake applications. I tried dialing this info to the show, but the phone lines were jammed. Wonder why?).

Lori's post-show report: "I had a blast talking with those guys!" It was palpable. (Photo courtesy of Lori Bentley Law)




Hot Rod magazine Staff Editor Elana Scherr will be dropping by the Motor Mouth Radio studios this Thursday, October 24th. Tune into www.motormouthradio.com at Noon Eastern/9:00 AM Western to catch the action as the Motormouths meet Elana and her decidedly human interest slant on topics from 6-cylinder Mopars to that pizza joint in Europe. An overdramatic tip of the pith helmet to Motor Mouth Radio, for once again shining their K-Mart flashlight on the women of hot rodding and motorsports!

(Photos stolen from Hot Rod.com)




Immediately following Sunday's radio show, I panicked out to Dr. Lockjaw's "Custom Metal" shop to resume work on the Model A (after a three week delay). The planned complete mock-up didn't happen, as a full day's work was required to straighten mangled 80 year-old tin before we could begin laying out attachment points for the sheetmetal. But we're ready now. Next week, for sure! Maybe.

Doc's place is a 30 mile drive, but they're 30 of the best laid out miles the Oregon Department Of Transportation ever paved. Perfect apexes, beautiful scenery, and deserted straight stretches...

The rusted firewall and front edge of the cowl were deemed a waste of our precious talents, so we deleted them, cleaned up the mess, and prepared for next week's full-on mock-up of body panels, inner tubing, drivetrain and suspension. Stay tuned to see if we actually check off anything on that list before Christmas.

Doc is so stoked about next week, he practically has sparks in his eyes already. Note shop repair on finger - it was one of those days. 



Taking the leap of faith from hobbyist to pro wrencher required a more serious tool storage system than my dilapidated canvas bags, cardboard boxes, and plastic buckets overflowing with broken rusty tools. Such grassroots gear doesn't impress potential employers like you would think. This Craftsman rollaway has served me well and should outlive me by a bunch. I filled it one paycheck at a time with adequate Craftsman tools - the best I could afford. It mostly sits in the Saint Shellski Cathedral basement garage these days. It's dark and creepy down there. My camera was obviously spooked and the shaky photos prove it. I thought I saw a ghost over by the lawn mower!

But let's face it - the only thing that defines one box from another is the artwork and grime it collects over time. Amazingly, this unit is mostly dent and scratch-free, after years of service in extremely adverse conditions. 

A few close-ups, including some very rare early Gosson Bros. decals that my brothers and I had a blast designing. Consider this sad example of toolbox neglect to be your reality slap of the day. They're admittedly rare, but they're out there, concealing drawers full of repair and fabrication adventures, successful and otherwise. My quest is to roll this one back into plenty more action before my expiration date arrives. (Scotty shots)