Don Garlits hogged so much of the ink spilled throughout 1959 that, in fairness to everyone else, we’ll devote two of these installments to drag racing’s biggest season yet. Garlits gets his own story because his first trip from Florida to the West Coast—indeed, the first cross-country tour by any drag racer—was the story of the year, if not of the young sport’s history thus far.
Camshaft sponsor Ed Iskenderian negotiated with three Western promoters to create open events in California and Arizona. Win, lose, or fail to stage for first round (Don’s fate at Bakersfield), the stranger was guaranteed today’s equivalent of around $40,000. The late Pat Garlits often remarked that nice homes in Tampa could be bought for less. Her husband often reminded reporters that Wally Parks had been giving away some real nice trophies, a Norge washing machine, tools, and other donated merchandise to Top Eliminators of recent NHRA Nationals, but no dough whatsoever. The young couple still held nearly all of that loot when their worn-out ’53 Buick limped back home, too, because Mr. Isky sponsored new speed equipment and new racer friends offered lodging and meals at each stop.
Their historic season was best documented by Drag News contributors and advertisers, particularly Iskenderian Cams. The accompanying clippings track drag racing’s first touring professional from March's humbling Bakersfield debut through December's triumphant California return at Riverside. Next time, we'll steer the column back into the groove and review what the rest of the sport was doing while the Swamp Rat was hogging these headlines in 1959.
Two individuals from opposite coasts who’d yet to meet in person, Don Garlits and Ed Iskenderian, dominate this installment just as they did Drag News throughout 1958. The season opened to full-page “hero” ads shouting that the 170-mph barrier really had been blasted by some unknown Floridian in a crude, homemade fueler built from Chevrolet frame rails. The year ended with a controversial Dec. 27 cover story declaring that the 180-mph barrier had just tumbled to the same guy, at—suspiciously—the same Florida track.
Of course, nobody out west swallowed either speed; possibly not even the savvy L.A. camgrinder promoting his newest hero in full-page Hot Rod and Drag News ads. If Ed Iskenderian did have doubts of his own, deep down, he’s never admitted to any. A time slip showing some big number was documentation enough for Isky’s promotions, whatever the prevailing track conditions and timing system. Never mind the customary backup run required of a track or “world” record (within two percent, at that time).
The season is only two races old – less than one month old – and already we have shenanigans and controversy.
We know Elvis was wrong. We CAN go on together with suspicious minds, and we will. And drag-racing folks simply will have to build their dreams on suspicious minds. But yes, as Elvis sang, “Here we go again . . .”
This time the buzz following the Magic Dry NHRA Arizona Nationals at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park centers on a couple of matters: significant shrapnel and the Pro Stock class’ new TV show. And we give a special Hard Luck Award of the Week to Funny Car racer Jack Beckman.
Here are some random recollections and revelations from the Winternationals . . .
BY THE TIME I GET TO PHOENIX . . . – Steve Torrence is especially glad to return to Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, where the week before the Winternationals he made a brief test-session appearance, nonchalantly posted the best elapsed time and speed (3.689, 328.78), and went home two days earlier than his competitors. This time he wants to regain the lead in the standings. Doug Kalitta ended Torrence’s streak of elimination round-wins at 57 and knocked him from the No. 1 position he had maintained since last year’s visit to Chandler, Ariz. At this year’s Magic Dry Arizona Nationals, Torrence will go after another Tony Schumacher NHRA record. After missing out on the chance to tie Schumacher’s record for consecutive Top Fuel victories, he’ll seek to eclipse Schumacher’s record for victories throughout the course of three consecutive seasons. Schumacher won 26 races from 2007-2009 campaigns. Torrence has 19 since the beginning of the 2017 season. Of course, he’d rather focus on winning races and championships and eventually pass Schumacher’s eight titles.
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.
While electronic engine management is disproving the old notion of “no replacement for displacement,” there’s still nothing better than old, yellowed newsprint for evaluating drag racing’s formative years. The sport’s rapid rise from the mid-1950s through the ’60s was duly documented only by the tabloid press, the first independent medium to pay us regular attention. A half-century ago, the pen was mightier than all of today’s websites, blogs and podcasts, television and cable networks, terrestrial and satellite radio stations—combined.
Beyond the fun and value delivered at the time to mailboxes, news racks, and speed shops, unaffiliated “drag rags”—i.e., cheap periodicals controlled neither by a sanctioning body nor NHRA-leaning Petersen Publishing Co. (whose editorial director until 1963 was Wally Parks), recorded the truest accounts to be found of this new American motorsport and its supporting industry. In 1964-65, the peak of L.A. publishing’s golden age, no fewer than three independent tabloids competed nationally for readers and advertisers week after week, right through winter, collectively producing 150 issues per year. Classic clippings from these Drag News, Drag Sport Illustrated, and Drag World weeklies comprise most of the artwork for our series.