A.J. Routt Photo

In a word, this season was all about Bakersfield. A local car club created an offseason event to bring Don Garlits to the West Coast for the first time, hoping to have some fun, kick his Eastern ass, maybe even add a few coins to the club treasury, if a few thousand folks were willing to brave winter weather. What the Smokers got was probably the biggest drag-race crowd to date, anywhere: some 31,000 on Sunday alone, guesstimated Drag News (though the paid percentage was low, due to club members being overwhelmed by gatecrashers). What fuel racers got was justification for burning nitro in defiance of the gas-only mandate still holding strong at major independent California tracks and NHRA-sanctioned strips nationwide. What fans got was the best open-wheel battle ever waged, even though Garlits was not a factor, blowing up his backup engine while pushing down for Round One (allowing Donnie Hampton a historic solo advancement)     

The “first-round runnerup’s” season soon got a whole lot better—and Garlits consequently got a whole column of its own, last time (see previous Drag Rags). Now, let's go back to 1959’s start to see how other major players, and the sport itself, progressed during this pivotal year. 

Because no major NHRA, AHRA, or NASCAR winter meet yet existed, the independent United States Fuel & Gas Championship, produced by Bakersfield’s small Smokers car club, effectively launched the racing season on February 28 and March 1. While NHRA’s officials were officially absent, its spies included the Petersen Publishing Co. photographers whose editorial director was none other than Wally Parks, also Hot Rod’s editor and the sanctioning body’s leader. 

Were such a well-publicized event to flop for any reason—whether bad weather, a failure to draw the few out-of-state racers still burning fuel, organizational hassles, insufficient attendance to cover generous purses plus Garlits's unprecedented $2000 cash guarantee, or some fatal combination thereof—Wally Parks and the country's other pump-gas proponents would've been gifted undeniable proof of their contention that "liquid horsepower" was just an expensive, explosive, obsolete luxury demanded by only the hardest of hardcore enthusiasts. 

Instead, nitro-starved fans flocked to remote Famoso Drag Strip in numbers not approached even by the gas-only National Drag Championships, NHRA's one national event. Collectively, those tens of thousands of nitro junkies pounded the biggest nail yet into prohibition's coffin. While NHRA would extend enforcement for four more seasons—during which Petersen publications overseen by editorial director Parks continued to ignore this and other "outlaw" events not restricted to gasoline—the beginning of the end of the ban is traceable to one weekend in March 1959. Next time a big load of nitromethane makes our eyes cry, our noses run, our throats burn, and our faces grin madly, let's all give thanks to the Smokers of Bakersfield.

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Six decades have not been kind to this crumbling copy. Publishers cannot be faulted for finding the cheapest newsprint for a disposable tabloid that was not intended to last only until the next issue arrived. Mid-February 1959, one week before the West Coast debut of Don Garlits and the unblown fueler that had supposedly smashed the 180-mph barrier last December, California’s Art Chrisman turned the trick on Riverside Raceway's certified Chrondek clocks. Newly equipped with a top-mounted 6-71, the Chrisman & Cannon Hustler improved both ends of publisher Herbert’s prestigious Standard 1320 A/Dragster record to 8.54 at 181.81.    
An unknown Okie cut quite a swath across SoCal this winter, taking back-to-back trophies at San Fernando and Lions. The Valley’s gasser contingent didn’t exactly warmly welcome the stranger who also broke track records in the super-competitive C/Gas class—and was promptly protested by someone posting the $20 or $25 fee. Rather than go to the trouble of possibly pulling a head to collect the trophy along with the protesting party’s cash (+/-$200 today), even rulebook-abiding racers would often forfeit the cheap trophy. Not Jimmy Nix, who hung around and collected both prizes.
Gas-class racers knew no greater honor than recognition in a national “hero” ad during the Camgrinder Wars. Note Jack Engle’s tactful spin on the protest that his record-setting customer experienced at ’Fernando—along with evidence of a half-second-quicker e.t. that same day with the weight out. (No wonder the locals were P.O.’d!) 
Unsigned artwork in a space-filler “house ad” resembles the early style of cartoonist Pete Millar. 


The biggest story all season would be Famoso Drag Strip's two-day United States Fuel & Gas Championship near Bakersfield—with emphasis on the "Fuel." By the time the 8.7-second cars of Art Chrisman (near lane) and Tony Waters tangled to determine Top Fuel Eliminator, both lanes were lined with rows of fans, the only illumination coming from San Diego photographer Bob Hardee's dual flash bulbs. Tony's DeSoto-powered, front-blown modified roadster led until he drove into moisture, slid sideways, then intentionally spun out to spare spectators. Chrisman, who was nursing a damaged crankshaft, lifted as soon as Waters dropped back, coasting to the biggest win of his career with perhaps the Hustler's slowest-ever winning times: 9.36, 140.50. Art often remarked that "The people were standing so close at the other end, I could've reached out and touched them!" Tommy Ivo took Top Gas and wowed the crowd with tail-dragging wheelstands, a new phenomenon. This March 7, 1959, edition of Drag News marked the paper's fifth birthday. Editor Dan Roulston and founding publisher Dick McMullen proudly announced an immediate doubling of frequency, from "semimonthly" to weekly. 
Switching battle tactics this season, Howard's Cams announced superior eight-cycle technology to counter rival Iskenderian’s claim to discovering a “fifth combustion cycle.” (See our 1958 installment of Drag Rags for the Howard’s ad that employed five cycling cartoon clowns to represent Isky’s five cycles.)
Another of Howard's early season "hero" ads credits his new, eight-cycle design for increasing power in the supercharged 283 Chevy that Doug Cook transplanted from his familiar C/Gas '37 coupe into camgrinder Johansen's own Studebaker sedan.    


The wide diversity of competitive Top Eliminator combinations is illustrated by Isky's pre-Bakersfield ad. Interestingly, the only top-blown example is Ted Cyr's, though John Bradley's flat motor also acquired a GMC 4-71 for the March Meet (where "Mr. Flathead" would fall to Art Chrisman in Round Two).   


Setting Top Speed, considered the ultimately indicator of horsepower, was still as significant to many racers—and newspaper editors and advertisers—as winning an event. This issue carried fresh March Meet results, yet the cover page mentioned neither Top Fuel Eliminator Art Chrisman (who defeated Cagle's cover car in Round One) nor Top Gas champ Tommy Ivo. 


Though Gary Cagle was neither first nor second to reportedly piece the 180-mph barrier, neither Garlits nor Chrisman had backed up their one-off speeds within the then-customary two percent—let alone on separate sets of Crocker and Chrondek timing systems, as this SoCal cop did at Bakersfield, hitting 180.36 (accompanied by a less-impressive e.t. of 9.14 seconds) with a backup of 180-flat.       

Robert "Jocko" Johnson was a brilliant inventor and the premier cylinder-head sculptor of his era, yet he'll forever be remembered for a stunning run nearly two-tenths quicker than Drag News's official Standard 1320 national record (8.54 by Chrisman & Cannon). Never mind that the original Jockoliner never backed up the sport's first credible sub-8.50 e.t. before a short-lived combination of "Jazzy" Jim Nelson's driving and Chet Herbert's blown-fuel Chrysler disintegrated like this fiberglass body their next time out, at Vacaville (California). Jocko and tinsmith Doug Kruse eventually hammered out a sturdy aluminum replacement, but the C-T stroker motor, the driver, and the magic moved on. Three of Jocko's streamliners are known to survive, including the controversial Wynn'sliner in Don Garlits's museum. 
Ed Iskenderian pulled no punches here, other than naming names. The upcoming 1960 installment of Drag Rags will document the start of a newspaper war that raged between Isky and nemesis Ray Giovannoni after Garlits shockingly defected to the newcomer.    


Chet Herbert was the first serious challenger to established grinders Ed Iskenderian, Howard Johansen, and Jack Engle for Top Eliminator business. This impressive showcase of record-holding customers appeared in the June 6 edition of Drag News (shortly after Chet financed the newspaper's purchase by Doris Herbert, his little sister).  


True to his word, rival SoCal promoter Mickey Thompson would reward Jim Nelson for the 153.53-mph charge at Santa Ana's final (June 28) meet with the promised prize. However, Jim’s top-speed effort overpowered the Dragmaster's brakes in the shutdown area, landing him upside down in a drainage ditch. Along with M/T's cool trophy, he collected some fractured vertebrae.    
Responding to demand from "little-guy" racers and fans, Drag News expanded its prestigious Standard 1320 Record List to include full-fendered classes this spring. No one out west was surprised to see Pittman & Edwards topping the gasser standings—nor a cover space usually reserved for dragsters. Since May, KS Pittman owned both ends of the national A/Gas Coupe & Sedan record at 11.65 and 121.29.        


The debut issue of slick Drag Racer magazine carried bittersweet coverage of Santa Ana's final event, ending nine years of weekly operation by the beloved "Pappy" and Peggy Hart. NHRA president Wally Parks presented the true Father of Drag Racing with a handsome clock trophy, inscribed, "In recognition of his outstanding accomplishments in connection with conducting the world's pioneer drag racing strip." The magazine’s race report further praised C.J.'s "friendly manner of handling ticklish situations."  
To our knowledge, Drag Racer was the first slick-stock, magazine-sized periodical devoted exclusively to our fledgling sport. Edited by ex-Drag News editor Dan Roulston, its June 1959 debut closely followed the disappearance of Dan's name from the tabloid’s masthead after Doris Herbert took control. Whatever happened to this unsung publishing pioneer, anyway? His trail seems to grow cold in the mid-'60s, after a PR stint with SEMA during the formative years of the organization founded as the Speed (now "Specialty") Equipment Manufacturers (now "Market") Association.   
Here’s the second of the seven magazines distributed during 1959, followed in order by the six others. One additional edition would appear in 1960 before the title suddenly vanished (as we'll see in the next Drag Rags column).
Issue Three
Issue Four
Issue Five
Issue Six
Issue Seven