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A.J. Routt Photo
While the exact years of drag racing's golden age are subject to endless debate, there's no doubt that the peak era for independent drag rags spanned the 1965 and '66 seasons — especially for writers, photographers, cartoonists, publishers, and ad salesmen based in southern California. This March, Drag World became the third national weekly produced in the Los Angeles area, joining long-established Drag News (since 1955) and fledgling Drag Sport Illustrated (1963).
Slick, independent magazines Drag Racing and Modern Rod also called L.A. home. Pete Millar published his satirical monthly comic book, Drag CARtoons, here. Newsstand heavies Petersen Publishing Co. and Argus Publishers Inc. were headquartered a few miles apart. While neither Hot Rod, Car Craft, nor
Popular Hot Rodding was by definition a drag-racing magazine, all three slick national monthlies increasingly focused editorial and advertising attention onto drag cars and events.
Not every independent periodical with national ambitions came from SoCal, of course—e.g., Drag Times, Eastern Drag News, and Super Stock were all D.C.-based—but never has any other city or region exerted such control over what's now know as the flow of information.
Drag racing's golden age of publishing didn't last long (for reasons to be addressed in future issues), but it sure left us with lots of smelly newsprint to revisit and enjoy all over again; so much juicy material that we're splitting each of these glorious mid-'60s seasons into six-month segments. January-through-June issues of these and other publications were researched for this initial 1965 installment, but it was first-year Drag Worlds that kept rising to the top of our pile.
This scrappy new kid on the block appeared out of nowhere at the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships and immediately set new standards—while breaking unwritten rules—for tabloid journalism and, yes, sensationalism. Most of the writing was done by ex-Drag News columnist Terry Cook ("New Jersey News"), who moved west to help publisher and art director Mike Doherty launch the paper for an investor unfamiliar with drag racing. (Doherty had answered an L.A. Times classified ad offering financial backing to would-be entrepreneurs with money-making ideas.)
Drag World's writing, typography, and graphic design far outshone the dated production values of both older independent tabloids. Cook's "On The Carpet" is arguably the best interview series ever published, pulling no punches. Now 79, Terry has recalled how "people in L.A. immediately called Drag World a 'scandal sheet.' They were so [bleeping] stupid! National Dragster was a house organ, not a real newspaper, and Drag News was mush. Drag Sport was mostly pictorial. Drag World was a real newspaper with real news."
Alas, Drag World also suffered real losses that ultimately resulted in a fire sale to AHRA (as we'll see in 1966's upcoming recap). Competing for readers was never the main challenge; there always seemed to be plenty of 25-cent buyers for all three independent weeklies. No, what was lacking was sufficient ad revenue to properly compete with "the bible," Doris Herbert's Drag News. Consequently, neither Drag World nor Drag Sport would prove sustainable for long. The colorful, brief histories of both papers -- along with a third weekly tabloid to be named later -- will unfold in coming episodes of Drag Rags.
*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].
The March Meet was such a big deal that Drag World, like Drag Sport Illustrated two years earlier, was introduced to the world at the event. This premiere edition's front-page story on the death of eight-year-old spectator Wayne Dye in Georgia generated immediate controversy for violating that unwritten rule of selfcensorship, "For the good of the sport."
Drag World's sensational debut package further included two more airborne "stockers." Connie Swingle had just embarrassingly endo'd the Garlits Dart during a press preview, while Tom McEwen "triple somersaulted" over the lights at Lions on the Hemi Cuda's first full pass. The critical, uncredited articles were mostly penned by rabble-rouser Terry Cook. (Later, he would edit both Car Craft and Hot Rod before returning to the Garden State and launching the Lead East shows for custom cars.)
Steve Scott — hot rodder, car builder, freelance photographer, and future Car Craft staffer — made news twice as NHRA's annual Winternationals hot-rod show concluded: Shortly after collecting the premiere Sweepstakes trophy, Steve got slapped by diminutive George Barris. Scott was carrying the victorious Uncertain-T's battery on one shoulder when Barris, some cronies, and the family that owned the Barris-built Ala Kart accosted him in front of numerous witnesses. For his website, Steve wrote, "The woman then blurted out that George promised them that they would win! George then slapped me … I just stared down at him and laughed. … Someone else with less restraint than I had might have smashed the very heavy car battery on his head! … would that have been 'Assault With A Battery'?" Steve filed charges, went to court, and was awarded a permanent restraining order. The judge promised to jail Barris if he ever came near Scott or hassled him in any way. (Steve, who now resides in Hawaii, confirmed that his iconic, homebuilt hot rod survives, intact, in storage on the mainland—unrestored and unseen for more than four decades.
Although the electronic starting device nicknamed "Christmas tree" was in its third NHRA season, the multiple-amber countdown was still hugely unpopular with heads-up racers, particularly out west. More than one driver had intentionally run over a tree to force a return to flag starts (along with at least one irate push-car operator whose driver, John Batto, had red-lit during a big Fremont points meet). Note how publisher-artist Millar outfitted his ax-wielding President with the patch of the fledgling United Drag Racers Association, whose influential SoCal members strongly favored the instant-green system nicknamed "LL" (for "leavers lose") in use at Lions and elsewhere. Its modern descendant is the single-amber "pro" tree.
The March Meet's explosive growth since 1959 so overwhelmed the small Smokers car club that overworked members voted to sell operational and naming rights to their United States Fuel & Gas Championships to Detroit Dragway owner Gil Kohn. Unpopular policy changes and cost cutting at this initial running caused some dragster stars to bypass the race during Eaton's brief, stormy stewardship. Oldtimers in Bakersfield still question the club's decision to turn over the world's greatest independent meet (also Kern County's biggest sporting event) to an outside promoter with NHRA connections.
Enlarge the artwork to fully appreciate the detail in this Pete Millar masterpiece. The illustration appeared in the June '65 edition of the late artist's controversial magazine, Drag CARtoons. The same issue covered the Bakersfield experience of Joe McKinney, winner of a reader contest to join the crew of Millar's B/Gas Dragster at the March Meet. Much more than typical collections of cartoons, the nationally-distributed monthly skewered drag racing's movers and shakers. NHRA and Wally Parks were frequent targets of insightful political humor.
Drag World's first edition also brought the first news of the Dodge Chargers since the factory-backed exhibition team fell apart the previous summer. The new owners' installation of their proven Top Fuel 392 combination proved instantly disastrous for Doc Halladay, who rolled the former Jim Johnson-driven Charger just off the line. The GuZler guys junked the remains of this car and sold off its ex-Jimmy Nix stablemate, the only known survivor (since restored and returned to the Midwest, in a private collection). The third blown sedan served Dodge as a backup and show car that fulfilled static dealership commitments (under young Charlie Allen's guidance) before being sold this year to southern California racers. Our research has produced evidence of just one local appearance before the display car disappeared.
Of all the names that Don Garlits was called during his first West Coast tour, "numismatist" is surely the hardest to spell. Drag World's March Meet coverage defined it as a currency collector or enthusiast, and confirmed rumors that this one preferred payment in—and even offered promoters discounts for—silver coins. Determined this year to end a Bakersfield losing streak dating to 1959's inaugural, he hauled three fuelers and two fellow drivers west. An all-Swamp-Rats grand finale saw Don easily beat teammate Marvin Schwartz, while Connie Swingle scored another final-round finish as runnerup in Number Two ("consolation") Eliminator. Though the world's fastest numismatist earned the right to sit out Sunday by topping Saturday's show, he took over Schwartz's ride in each preliminary round and went undefeated, again—advancing Garlits to the Top Fuel Eliminator showdown against himself, as per the 64-car ladder. Don returned to his own, well-rested car to defeat "Starvin'" Marvin for an amazing 11th winning round of eliminations.
At least two unusual sights attracted pit attention at Fremont's annual week-after-Bakersfield showdown: (1) the seldom-seen VideoLiner, Tommy Ivo's most-disappointing race car, unpainted and missing the canopy that burned in a trailer fire enroute to this nightmarish debut; (2) the always-glib Jeep Hampshire struck speechless, for some reason. Both photos by Kaye Trapp, a Hollywood-studio photographer by trade, ran in the Mar. 20 Drag News.
Claiming that frustrated Eastern and Midwestern track operators had come to him to get "a stronger voice in the national picture," NASCAR founder Bill France (left) announced a season-long, nationwide points series patterned after his Grand National program. Pictured are members of a new board of directors, Drag Racing Division (L-R): Leo Martin, representing Detroit; Ed Witzberger, Pittsburgh; Keith Metty, Ann Arbor; Bob Fishaw, Detroit, plus national-event-director Walt Metzer (who founded the American Hot Rod Association in 1956, before Jim Tice assumed control). Big Bill also took this opportunity to announce NASCAR's acceptance of exhibition jets, then forbidden by NHRA, and Chrysler's new altered-wheelbase A/FXers, which NHRA classified as altereds.
Its Modified Production and 427 signage are evidently outdated references to a prior life in sportsman classes, because by May 9 at Fremont, this Chevy II had been transformed into a match-race A/FXer carrying a 426 Chrysler and fiberglass panels. DSI's description of the cover photo (credited to "Fat Franciscian") read, "Wow! 11.11 for the first time out. Watch out for this one." Watch out is right! The future "Jungle" was still so little known, even locally, that his surname was misspelled by the caption writer as "Lebeman." Also note the smaller, magazine-sized cover. DSI's experimental downsizing from a folded tabloid into stapled, 8-1/2x10-inch pages was intended to encourage newsrack display and compatibility with standard, magazine ad sizes. The weekly would regain its larger, original form before the end of this year.
Ever since the 200-mph barrier had been hammered in the last half of 1964 by conventional slingshots, streamliners gradually lost their luster and heavy bodywork. 'Liner-pioneer Jocko Johnson was never one to give up easily, however, and adapted this swoopy fiberglass to a couple of conventional Woody Gilmore slingshots. The "Jungle Four" team's first full pass was promising on this Sunday at 197 mph, but note that the new nose had already been bloodied and bandaged; the night before, Larry Faust drifted into Lions's top-end lights on a checkout pass. Continuing high-speed unpredictably soon sidelined Jocko's second of three attempts at streamlining (to be followed by the ill-handling Wynn's Liner that would end Jocko's relationship with Garlits).
Despite the weight and aerodynamic handicaps of genuine Fiat Topolino sheetmetal, a bottom-dollar AA/Fuel Competition Coupe stunned Top Fuel favorites Pat Foster and Jerry Glenn en route to a final-round upset at 'Fernando. Frank Pedregon's ecstatic crew included sons Tony, Cruz, and Frank Jr., pictured publicly with Dad for perhaps the first time ever in this June 5 Drag News photo. The '56 sedan behind them doubled as weekday family transportation and weekend tow-and-push car.
Mere months after winning his first NASCAR Grand National championship, beloved Richard Petty became embroiled in quarter-mile controversy for the second time. NHRA's practice of allowing factory-backed Factory Experimentals into altered classes—whether because of nonconforming match-race equipment or at the request of noncompetitive automakers seeking to avoid heads-up embarrassment at major meets—ruffled the feather of "little guys" competing with traditional coupes, sedans, and roadsters. The Springnationals' class-winning B/Altered Barracuda was Richard's second, replacing the similar "Petty Blue" A/FXer that crashed into a crowd this February.
Our search for updates about a "veteran drag racer" in Texas named Kenneth Porter came up empty, except for one 2013 newspaper item—timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination—that revealed him to remain married to Lee Harvey Oswald's widow. (Congratulations, you kids! Thanks for the research, Tom Posthuma!)
The significance of holding a spot amongst the Drag News Mr. Eliminator Top 10 in this era cannot be overstated. Best-of-three-round battles were publicized and taken as seriously as open competition by the challenger, defender, press, and public. Track records and fuel motors were routinely broken. The Number-One driver could only be challenged by the other nine concurrent spot-holders. From the sixth position, little-known Ed McCulloch boldly went for the crown that Pete Robinson had repeatedly and successfully defended for nearly a year. "June 13, 1965, was a big day for me," understated McCulloch via e-mail, reminding us that the future "Ace" dethroned "Sneaky" Pete two straight (7.62/199.54; 7.50/206.42). Moreover, he did it driving the second of three fully suspended, needle-nosed "MagiCars" crafted by industry-leader Kent Fuller. "It was a handful on a so-so run, 7.50, 7.60," Ed said. "You could get down the track. On a more-powerful run, it was all but crash! The car was still sprung when we beat 'Sneaky' Pete. Later, we removed the springs, front and rear, and made the chassis solid-mount."
The Petersen monthlies carried glowing reports of the second Hot Rod Magazine Championships, but Drag World's Terry Cook ripped into the Riverside meet. Sensitive to criticism (and an AHRA lawsuit) arising from NHRA's close ties to the previous year's inaugural edition, Robert E. Petersen turned over operational control to RIR's regular drag-racing crew. Manager Don Rackemann's decision to conduct handicapped eliminations by positioning the quicker racer so many car lengths ahead of the slower, then personally flagging them off, drew hoots and insults from fans. When Ray Christian's staggered advantage resulted in the defeat of local-favorite Shirley Shahan, Rackemann was pelted with cans and garbage on the starting line.