Your stories, Part 2Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Here’s Part 2 of your stories about your first brush with drag racing greatness, hanging out with local heroes in their neighborhood garages. In rereading some of the submissions, a number of them were memories of the first trip to the drags and not of the hanging out variety, so I'm going to save those for a later column because there are some pretty fun memories to be had there, too.

Tom Caplis: “I'm from Missoula, Mont., which is where Dave Wren called home until he moved west to get closer to the tracks. Dave's shop was a garage on the south side of town that was close to a teen hangout called the Tiny Tee. As I recall, he had to restrict how many kids could come on his property and watch the proceedings, but we would still hang out, even out at the curb, just in case he started one of the cars. One night, my brother came home with the news that Dave had brought the 'Cuda out into the street and proceeded to do a burnout and a couple of test launches (wheels up). My other brother and I were so jealous! Another guy I remember from growing up in Missoula was named Doug Jones. Doug built custom speed boats in his garage. They were beautiful wooden hulls with custom fiberglass, metal-flake paints etc. When Doug needed a few hands to help flip one of the hulls over, he would start one of the big engines, and kids would come streaming from all over the neighborhood. I remember a blown Chrysler on one boat and a SOHC Ford on another. All had zoomies, and all were prop-driven with the drive coming out the front of the engine to a transmission next to the driver. Both Dave Wren and Doug Jones had success with their hot rod enterprises, and both moved to the West Coast about the time I got out of high school (1969).”

Bill Duke: “In 1969, my family moved to Chino, Calif. In accompanying a schoolmate on his paper route, I discovered that just a block away was a guy named Tom Bristow. In his garage was the 305-inch DeSoto-powered Jr. Fueler of Brasil & Bristow. Gene Brasil later ventured to Top Gas in 1970 while Bristow remained with the injected nitro classes. He partnered with quite a few folks over the years, including Lee Jennings. Eventually, Jr. Fuel died and was replaced by Combo eliminator, the precursor to Pro Comp. I suspect they found it difficult to compete against twin-engine Top Gas rails and AA/FAs, so a 354-inch Chrysler was installed. Bristow joined Pro Comp during the class’ inception with a blown alky front-engined dragster. From there on, he served as pilot for a bevy of cars, including a BB/FC. His last ride, to my recollection anyway, was the Lemon & Burr Funny Car in and around the mid-'90s."

Bob Park: “Growing up in La Puente, Calif., we could ride our bicycles to Joe Smith’s Top Fuel Bike house and the shops of Les Hawkins’ AA/FA and Nick Sorino’s Top Fuel dragster and the neighbor who ran the Agitator AA/GS. This was a short bicycle ride, and all racers would make sure to take care of the kids in the neighborhood. We were so lucky to have this in SoCal. I was exposed to a real racer named Les Ritchey when a friend of mine took me to West Covina, and there was an early Ford ('36?) with Plexiglas windows (blue) and orange in color. My buddy told me a drag racer owned this car. About three years later, I worked in a Phillips 66 gas station and met a young lady (Wendy Roden) and started dating. One day, she wanted to double date with her best friend, Jeannie, and her boyfriend, Mark. I agreed, and we went to Shakey’s in West Covina. When we had some conversation, I talked about drag racing. Jeannie started to cry and left for the ladies room. I asked her boyfriend, ‘What did I say wrong?’ He explained to me her father, Les Ritchey, was killed in a racing accident. I did not know what words to come up with and was so sorry as I had no idea who her father was. Today, I am friends with Les’ son Randy and laugh at when I saw his early Ford. This is how drag racing evolved to what it is today, hardworking people working jobs during the week and racing on weekends. They did not brag about what they did on the weekends, and today, racers are able to make a good living doing what those racers did for nothing. I'm sure today's racers respect what others did for a small sum so they can enjoy the fruits of early racers.”


J. D. Culbertson: “I grew up in Compton, Calif., in the '50s and '60s. In the quiet of the evening, you could hear the nitro cars at Lions. My first trip to Lions was with my neighbor and his dad. I was about 9 or 10. I was hooked. The smell of nitro and burnt rubber was the clincher. There were some storied drag racing shops in Compton. Cerney's Paint was on Bullis Road, and I watched many cars get painted there. My fondest memory was the Mooneyham streamliner; that was a beautiful car. I wish I could have seen it run. I also used to ride my bike over to the Service Center and watch Kelly letter the cars. I was a shy kid and never got up the nerve to talk to him. I did get to meet Kelly at the Bixby Knolls Cacklefest this summer and told him the story. He said I should have spoke up. He was a really nice man. He shared some stories with me, and I left with a smile on my face.”

Dennis Friend: “Growing up on the farm meant a trip into town (Princeton, Ill.) every Friday night for shopping. That meant passing by Ray’s Muffler and Speed Shop, which was also out in the country four miles from our farm. It must have been when I was 10 years old I started noticing on the way home from town the lights would always be on, and some really cool cars would be parked outside – hmmm, what was inside that little building? Fast-forward to the summer of my 12th birthday (1959) and the best birthday present ever: a bright red Cushman Eagle. It was used but like a Cadillac to me. Well, guess where my first trip was (after my chores were done, of course): Ray’s Muffler and Speed Shop.

“Let me backtrack a little. The previous summer, a little coupe appeared out behind the shop with no engine in it. I had also bought my first little car book and had seen pictures of dragsters. Well, inside that little building sat a dragster – Pontiac engine, six twos, and a GMC four-speed Hydromatic transmission. Say what? Ray Wirges, along with sons Bill and Dick, never did things the usual way. That little coupe was a 1933 Plymouth, powered by a Pontiac engine, and with the help of a transmission shop in Chicago was using a four-speed Hydro that could be manually shifted. That engine and tranny were now in the dragster they built. After much pleading with my parents, that summer, I got to go with the Wirgeses to my first drag race, the 1959 World Series at Cordova. Saw ‘the Greek,’ Speed Sport Roadster, Leffler-Loukas (the winner), DCB coupe from Texas, and the Hall Chevrolet 1955 Chevy blown gasser. Been hooked now for 53 years.”

Mike Burg: “Like one of the other readers wrote, growing up in northeast Ohio was heaven for a kid looking for speed. We had the gassers, we had Otie Smith, we had ‘Akron Arlen,’ we had Ken Veney, and we had Art Arfons. My dad worked for Firestone in Akron, and I managed to convince him to take me out to Art's shop. This would have been about the time of the nonstop Arfons vs. Breedlove battles on the salt. Art was the most laid-back type of guy you'd ever want to meet. He'd stop working to talk to us and answer questions. Once I got my license, weekends were spent out at Dragway 42, but poor Art, I bugged the daylights out of that man. I went out to his shop a lot but was always greeted by name and made to feel like he had no other fans but me, even though I knew better.”

OK, that (finally) wraps up that topic. I always enjoy these first-person tales and what memories come flooding back, what sensory flashbacks are fueled, and how it can make any of us sound (and feel) like teenagers again. Fun stuff.

The next two weeks are going to be super busy on the National DRAGSTER front as I’m traveling to Dallas Thursday, returning Monday, then heading out to St. Louis that Thursday and back again the following Monday, which is going to severely limit my ability to crank out new Insider columns in the interim, but I’ll work on it. I hope it won’t be a two-week hiatus, but I wanted to give you the heads-up just in case.