A.J. Routt Photo

No single season is drag-racing history has been stranger or more impactful than 1957. In the first week of February alone, the supposedly-impenetrable 160-mile-per-hour barrier fell and, not coincidentally, nitromethane was banned. In March, while drag strips elsewhere were still thawing out, eight southern California promoters got together at Drag News headquarters and jointly prohibited multiple engines, too. Superchargers barely squeaked by that same night, surviving a deadlocked vote by the ban-crazy track operators.  

Potentially even worse was the existential crisis inflicted early in 1957 by two powerful, highly influential organizations. First, the International Association of Chiefs of Police adopted a resolution to discourage cops from endorsing or otherwise supporting hot rodders’ “speed events”; in other words, organized drag meets. The National Safety Council followed with a similar “program recommendation” whose faulty logic concluded, “Since speed violations are so often involved in traffic accidents, the National Safety Council cannot condone speeding even in the name of competition.” As acceptable alternatives, the NSC suggested: “Economy runs, driver clinics and leadership in traffic safety programs are examples of desirable outlets for interest in automobiles and driver ability.” In other words, let’s all get back to the boring, car-club activities for which the National Hot Rod Association was founded in 1951. (Only two years later did NHRA jump onto drag racing’s bandwagon with a trial event at Pomona. Membership boomed. You know the rest.)  

Luckily for us all, nitromethane, blowers, and dual engines survived 1957. The sport exploded in popularity and gradually gained public acceptance. Not least of the reasons why was the emergence of a primitive rail job driven by someone so little known that neither Drag News nor the driver’s sponsors seemed to know his name in early photo captions, settling for “Don’s Speed Shop.” Whoever he was, this Easterner dared challenge the national supremacy enjoyed by open-wheeled California racers since Santa Ana Drags opened for business in 1950. Naturally, they hated this Garlits guy they’d never seen. Ed Iskenderian gleefully fueled their fire with continuous “hero” ads boasting dubious “world-record” runs in far-off Florida.

Because the biweekly Drag News was the sole independent source covering our young sport in 1957, a personal collection of the fragile tabloid is our main source of documentation. (Surviving copies are hard to find, though WDIFL.com sells CDs containing individual-page scans of every 1955-71 edition. Reproduction quality varies with the source material, but almost everything is legible.) We’re also sharing a couple of late-season ads that ran in mighty Hot Rod, magazine which always dwarfed Drag News in circulation and revenue. In future installments, we’ll be adding highlights from other independent newspapers and magazines in existence between 1959 (the original Drag Racer magazine) and the mid-’60s’ “golden age” of drag-racing publishing, when a dozen titles fought for space in stores and our bathrooms. Join us next time for the 1958 season, on paper.  

San Diego-based driver Emery Cook, owner Cliff Bedwell, and engine-builder Bruce Crower combined to earn the first major headlines of this historic season on Sunday, February 3, in Wilmington, California. Back-to-back blasts of 165.13 and 166.97 mph obliterated Cook’s own Lions Associated Drag Strip record of 157.06 (in Red Henslee’s modified roadster), exceeded Bob Alsenz’s all-time-fastest speed of 159.01, and discredited the “slide-rule experts” who’d long held that no wheel-driven vehicle could legitimately shatter the 160-mph “barrier.” Most significantly, this unprecedented single leap in speed—fully five percent!—triggered the infamous fuel ban of 1957-63. (You might’ve built the unauthorized model as a kid. Its maker mentioned no names, offered no royalties, and sold plenty of the first realistic dragster kit that most builders ever saw at hobby stores.)
The very next day, February 4, pioneering promoter C.J. “Pappy” Hart told Drag News that his Santa Ana Drags would require pump gas across the board, effective immediately. Not coincidentally, this item appeared in the same February 9 edition that carried news and photos of Emery Cook’s nitro-fueled record runs.
Page One of the following (biweekly) paper brought more surprises. A Top Eliminator upset scored by John Bradley’s flathead fueler at San Fernando was overshadowed by shocking revelations that seven California promoters had not only agreed to adopt Santa Ana’s gas-only policy after March 1, but also voted on banning blowers and multiple engines. This unattributed item is the earliest we’ve found anywhere suggesting the “nation-wide movement” that Wally Parks later endorsed.   
Suddenly, the West Coast was going ban-crazy. Engine displacement was well-meaning promoters’ next target. Eastern and Midwestern strips hadn’t even thawed out before the same California operators who’d just outlawed nitromethane also excluded dual-engined alternatives, as of April Fool’s Day. Representatives from Kingdon, Saugus, San Fernando, San Gabriel, Pomona, Colton, Santa Ana, Lions, and Paradise Mesa further agreed in principle to impose common displacement ceilings in the near future, suggesting 410 cubic inches for unblown engines or 276 if supercharged. The single-engine requirement never caught on, and the wacky notion of restricting Top Eliminator engine sizes got no traction (until decades later). 
Wally Parks has been unfairly blamed for starting the fuel ban. In fact, NHRA’s president deliberated for more than a month before pledging support in the March 23 Drag News—and committing only to NHRA’s sole national event. Only later were all sanctioned tracks pressured to run NHRA classes on gasoline exclusively, up until the 1964 Nationals (excepting an invitational Top Fuel “experiment” at the 1963 Winternationals). Just across Page One appeared Scotty Fenn’s replacement for the slingshot he sold to Lou Baney, which became the Cook & Bedwell barrier breaker—and put Fenn’s Chassis Research Co. on the map. The savvy selfpromoter and NHRA antagonist (behind tire) lettered his engine cover, “Read ‘Drag News.’”     
At a time when organized drag racing was under attack from both the National Safety Council and the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the sport received a much-needed shot of credibility from the country’s most-influential magazine. An eight-page article entitled “Life at the Drags” carried several photos from Santa Ana’s first NHRA-sanctioned event on March 24. Advance notice of coverage by a Life photographer helped attract unusually large turnouts of approximately 3000 fans and 328 entries. Norm Grabowski and Tommy Ivo staged a special grudge match between the world’s first and second T-buckets, respectively. (Ivo would never forgive us for failing to mention that he won both this and their only other race, at Saugus Drag Strip, the roadster’s first time out.)
This Hot Rod magazine ad and Isky’s response helped establish the challenge-counterchallenge format for the “Camgrinder Wars” and “Gasser Wars” that would intrigue readers — and enrichen publishers — from the late ’50s through the mid-’60s. Stay tuned to CP for some classic examples, starting with our next issue (1958).  
Ed Iskenderian, drag racing’s original master marketer, accepted rival Howard Johansen’s challenge with this Hot Rod ad, upping the ante to $500 per car (equivalent to about $4300 in modern money) and the winner-take-all purse to $1000 ($8500 now). As far as we can determine, no such showdown occurred before Cliff Bedwell sold his famous fueler. 
The biggest beneficiaries of SoCal’s new bans were two-wheeled contestants. Previously dominant in the formative years of Top Eliminator, when traction disadvantaged overpowered rails, the big bikes now regained competitiveness in the absence of fuel burners and twins. Two female admirers seem to be enjoying this Vincent’s domination of the dragsters at Lions
The radical modifications that Emery Cook made to Scotty Fenn’s “skid-bar” cockpit improved his vision, as intended, if not his chances of surviving a rollover. Kansan Lloyd Davis bought the complete combination and continued setting track records in the Midwest. After the car’s retirement, its chassis reportedly was stolen out of a barn and vanished. 

Nobody on the West Coast believed that a nobody on the other coast could legitimately turn these times, with the possible exception of Ed Iskenderian, whose subsequent advertising campaign made Don Garlits famous — and despised like no drag racer before or since. The controversy ignited by this edition of Drag News, then fueled by Isky’s continuous promotion, led directly to creation of the Bakersfield March Meet 16 months later. (Read all about it in the upcoming 1959 installment of this series.)   


Another name that Drag News helped bring to national attention was Pete Millar’s, which appeared in the masthead above “Artist.” He went on to draw the cartoons in Hot Rod’s tech-letters section, create Rod & Custom’s Arin Cee character, and eventually publish Drag Cartoons, a satirical comic book that honored Drag News traditions for independent, timely, fearless race coverage and commentary. Watch for many more examples of Millar’s genius as our series moves into the 1960s.  
Here’s the first glimpse that many West Coast racers got of the man driving the crude rail that they loved to hate. The presenting International Timing Association was among numerous regional organizations staging drag meets this season. 
Alas, you just missed — by 60 years — that big chance to buy an A-V8 roadster for 225 bucks or a three-window Deuce for $275, less engines. Some lucky buyer could’ve dragged either project home behind the complete, hopped-up ’50 Olds that cash-strapped Mr. Snyder was offering for $650.  
Some oldtimers trace the history of Willys supercharged gassers back to this season and this ’36 coupe, whose stock nose gives no clue of the blown Cad lurking beneath. The A/Gas record-holder at multiple SoCal strips was subsequently sold to C.J. Hart and run by his wife, Peggy.  
Several issues scanned for this series came courtesy of the late, great Gray Baskerville, who was attending UC Santa Barbara in 1957. Two decades later, after the author joined him on the staff of Hot Rod in 1977, “Basket Case” generously passed along his pristine Drag News copies — no charge — with directions to someday, somehow, share the wealth with an interested audience. Gray’s been gone since 2002, but he must have decent Internet signal up or down there, because we hear him giggling from here.