A.J. Routt Photo
This first full season free from fuel restrictions since 1956 opened like none before. Imagine five major meets in six weeks, starting with the inaugural United Drag Racers Association Championships at Lions Associated Drag Strip. The racer-run show was surprisingly successful, somewhat upstaging the next two week-ends' traditional openers, the AHRA Winter Nationals and NHRA Winternationals, respectively. After one week off, the action resumed with back-to-back biggies at Bakersfield and Fremont, Calif. — all before the middle of March, only in the west.
The race to convincingly reach 200 miles per hour — backed up within the then-customary two percent — carried over from late 1963, when the Chrysler-powered kings of the sport seemed stuck in the mid-190s with their con-ventional “weedburner” pipes and lightweight “shorty” bodies. Slingshots expensively rebod-ied into swoopy aluminum streamliners specifically to break the barrier were proving both heavy and spooky. No, the hot, trick setup for those few elusive miles per hour would be far simpler and cheaper: basically inverting a set of 392 headers. Frank Cannon’s resultant 199 on Lions’ trusted clocks effectively ended the Streamliner Era in a single pass.
Simultaneously, Chrysler had treated 1964’s NASCAR and straight-line “stockers” to a nor-mally aspirated, 426-cubic-inch version of the 1959-vintage 392 Hemi that long ruled super-charged dragging. Not to be outdone, Ford’s purpose-built ’64 Thunderbolt radically stretched the acceptable relationship of as-sembly line vehicles to "factory lightweights" by stuffing an automaker’s biggest big-block into a midsized economy car offered in show-rooms only with a six or low-performance small-block. Meanwhile, drag racing’s biggest sponsorship package to date sent a trio of new sedans with blown stroker motors to drag strips and Dodge stores nationwide.
Oh, so many major changes; all of the above occurring before this unprecedented season was half over! No way could COMPETITION PLUS do justice to 1964's many and varied contributions in a single installment of Drag Rags. Rather, we’re devoting this entire chapter to material published in issues dated January through June, only. Tune in next time for a second half that was equally unreal.
*Editor’s Note: Some original, duplicate issues of these & other 1964 weeklies & monthlies are offered by the Wallace Family Archives’ personal library. E-mail requests to [email protected] .
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It's said that pioneers always catch a few arrows in the ass. The fulltime Dodge Chargers drivers certainly qualify as pioneers and bull’s eyes. No expense was spared preparing three race cars, plus a matching trio of stock '64 hardtops for street use between engagements, a trick transporter, and an elaborate pit display complete with perimeter lighting. A fulltime truck driver and mechanic were hired. After Dragmaster Company's Jim Nelson and Dode Martin finished converting three lightweights supplied by the factory, Dean Jeffries flared their fenders, rolled up some front and rear pans, then sprayed all six '64 Dodges matching red, white, and blue. Johnson's Charger really charged in early testing, recording probably the best times yet for any type of production-based "stocker": 10.90s at 141.66 mph. After Dragmaster’s Nelson detuned the stroker wedges for durability, typical runs ranged around 130, in the low 11s. Speaking of rolled, the late Jimmy Nix (shown) did exactly that on his very first run, unknowingly downshifting, instead of upshifting, a push-button Torqueflite modified with a reverse-pattern valve body. Things went downhill from there, in his view, from a towing accident at the tour's start to his and teammate Jim Johnson's final appearance with one mortally wounded car that barely started, then expired in the pits, surrounded by unsympathetic Southern spectators. The drivers were pelted with debris during a hasty exit. Nix dreaded talking about the experience for the rest of his life; not Johnson, who told all to Hot Rod 45 years later. (If you saved the old magazines, check out May '09 for Johnson's interview, and July '64 for an introductory feature.)
The sport received four pages of unusually positive mainstream exposure in The Saturday Evening Post's first issue of the new year. Full-color photos were shot at NHRA's 1963 Nation-als.
The lady driver sure gets great bite out of those skinny whitewalls, eh? Decades before PhotoShop, the image was likely the work of former Yeakel general manager Lou Baney, who took over the dealership after Bob Yeakel crashed his plane onto the San Bernardino Freeway (now I-10) near Ontario, California, killing himself, his two sons, an employee, and an unlucky commuter. Baney also owned and tuned dealership-backed fuelers driven by Tom McEwen and Don Prudhomme.
Confrontational Gasser Wars ads often took the form of an open letter bearing the supposed "signature" of a driver or owner. Suspicions about who was actually writing the inflamma-tory copy were confirmed by George Montgomery's complaint in Bob Ramsay's Jan. 25 "Eastern Topics" Drag News column. Ohio George was referring to the full-page Isky ad that ran two issues earlier.
Dave Zeuschel, shown in the seat normally oc-cupied by Don Moody, was handed a bed pan by San Fernando Raceway's helpful ambulance attendants prior to making his first and only Top Fuel pass. He accepted a friendly challenge from local rivals Ron Winkel and John Wender-ski, whose Black Beauty had already earned a final-round single run (after Bobby Tapia broke in the semis). Instead, the Valley engine-builders staged a crowd-pleasing grudge match. Zeuschel took the squirrelly pedalfest in 9.02 seconds at 168.00 mph, handily prevailing over a losing effort diplomatically described by track reporter Dave Wallace Sr. in Drag News as a "polite 10-plus at 148.00."
This could be the first time that a noise curfew was headlined in the national weeklies. Re-sponding to complaints from residential neigh-bors and especially a pastor just across the Pacoima Wash (bordering the far lane), track owners Fritz Burns and Bill Hannon and man-ager Harry Hibler voluntarily restricted open headers to three hours, starting after the church's last Sunday service concluded. Nearly always, the little track miraculously completed all qualifying and eliminations for respective eight-car Top Fuel, Top Gas, and Little Elimina-tors, plus all "uncorked" trophy classes, be-tween 12:30 and 3:30 p.m., year-'round (ex-cept Easter and Mother's Day).
This premiere issue of the bimonthly Modern Rod made a big splash by publishing NHRA's Nov. 1963 financial statement alongside its original March 1951 articles of incorporation. An unfamiliar contributor giving his name as Chuck Garner, claiming to be a 22-year-old racer, questioned NHRA's continued insistence on posting merchandise awards exclusively, instead of distributing some of the $144,737.04 in its bank account to member racers.
Here's another example of an "open letter" supposedly penned by a Super Gas racer occu-pying ad space purchased by his camgrinder sponsor. Isky customers John Mazmanian and Bones Balogh dominated the early season, sweeping A/GS at the NHRA Winternationals, U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships—with an unprecedented 9.77—and Hot Rod Magazine Championships.
Illustrating that good things come in pairs, independently operated Fresno Dragways staged two pairs of hitter fuelers for what was likely the most-lucrative single round anywhere to date. Jeep Hampshire (near lane) grabbed a cool grand at a time when neither of NHRA's national events paid cash (only donated merchandise). The rest of this Feb. 29 Drag Sport Illustrated page suggests that cofounders Phil Bellomy and Jim Kelly shared a sense of humor, along with photographic talent.
Could this be the earliest full-track application of liquid traction compound? The special occasion was the fifth annual March Meet. (The unintended consequences of chemical track prep continue to present!)
Pete Robinson was the leading proponent of controversial "jack starts," while Don Garlits (far side) led the opposition that ultimately prevailed. Lions manager C.J. Hart (back-ground, plugging ears) was having no such nonsense on launches, but “Pappy” is allowing Sneaky Peak to raise the rearend here and clean off his slicks (note clearance) prior to staging for a final-round upset, 8.17/180 to Garlits’s 8.44/186.
Veteran fuel racer Gary Cagle wasn't alone in his displeasure with Famoso Drag Strip's initial use of a full-countdown starting system that kept drivers waiting half a second between each of those amber bulbs.
The weekend after the March Meet was the biggest all year for northern California. Fremont Raceway filled with touring stars who welcomed another western date before returning to colder climes. Overshadowing the debut of the high-dollar Dodge Chargers (bottom) and everything else was Jim Marsh's huge Top Fuel upset with an injected Chevy. Moreover, the tiny Slot Racer of the Logghe brothers and Roy Steffey flat outran the blown Chryslers: a 7.92 broke the strip record and was the lowest unblown e.t. in history. A week earlier, the Michigan team was voted Bakersfield's coveted Best Performance Award for a qualifying blast of 8.14.
Drag Cartoons founder, publisher, and lead artist Pete Millar (pictured between Frankie and Annette) was never bashful about promoting his magazine or his whimsical National Asso-ciation for the Advancement of Flatheads. Pomona Raceway was the site of the racing-related scenes in Bikini Beach. (Lots more "Millarky" can be viewed at LaffYerAsphalt.com, the e-store operated by daughter Robin Millar.)
Mel "Sonny" Rossi was allowed into SoCal motorcycle classes before his back-motored Giant started beating conventional Triumph two-wheelers and got banned. He later ran a four-banger dragster and a scaled-down, Cosworth Vega-powered Bonneville roadster (permanently displayed at Speedway Motors's Nebraska museum). Highly regarded as an automotive and aircraft fabricator, Sonny is 84 and retired in his native San Antonio, Texas, with wife and racing partner Dixie.
Chet Herbert popularized upswept pipes on Chevy fuelers, but Chrysler builders didn't catch on to the aerodynamic and tire-cleaning advantages until Frank Cannon went 199.10 this spring with this Zeuschel setup. Ironically, it was rival-driver Paul Sutherland who welded up Frank's prototype zoomies as an employee of Woody Gilmore's Race Car Engineering. However, both Californians would trail a zoomie-equipped Swamp Rat through the bar-rier mph by one week this summer.
Super Stock drivers Gas Ronda (right) and Ray Sledge experienced these contrasting outcomes at Riverside International Raceway's inaugural Hot Rod Magazine Championships. Ronda's Thunderbolt earned the new Barracuda by topping Top Stock Eliminator with his Ford. Sledge got upside down in a factory-lightweight Plymouth whose front fenders carried the message repeated in DSI's cleverly inverted caption.
Some magazine buffs rate the first nationally-distributed drag mag as the best ever. Here's the second bimonthly issue from Los Angeles-based publisher Lou Kimzey and editor Mike Doherty, the same team that created sister-title Modern Rod. We'll be seeing lots more of Drag Racing and its successor, Drag Racing USA, incoming installments of Drag Rags.