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A.J. Routt Photo


Entire books could be written about the many historical milestones recorded during this single season. In February at Pomona, fuels other than pump gasoline returned to NHRA for the first time since the 1956 Nationals—if only unofficially and "experimentally." Immediately afterwards, NHRA president and outgoing Petersen Publishing Co. editorial director Wally Parks expressed buyer's remorse to his editors at Hot Rod, Car Craft, Rod & Custom: "Due to limited field of Fuelers that appeared for participation in the Winternationals, and the great amount of difficulty a number of them provoked, it is doubtful that NHRA will continue to include these classes at its major events," began a February 19 internal document unearthed only a few years ago in the PPC archive (by longtime, now-ex-archivist Thomas Voehringer). Indeed, just as president Parks wished, NHRA stubbornly continued to enforced the gas-only formula for its next (and only other) 1963 national event, Indy’s Big Go. Nearly no one outside of PPC and NHRA knew at the time how close Wally came to extending the unpopular ban beyond its seven miserable years.   

A month after Pomona’s season opener, the "stocker" world was rocked by GM's reinvigorated support for the Automobile Manufacturers Association (AMA) racing ban that its Pontiac division, in particular, had been circumventing with great success in NASCAR, USAC, NHRA, and land-speed racing for five years. Mid-1957, when more than 50 American automakers and suppliers pledged not to directly or indirectly sponsor or support auto racing, or even promote performance in advertisements, PMD's Bunkie Knudsen had secretly formed a back-door network of "skunkworks" operators. In particular, teams fielded by Mickey Thompson, Smokey Yunick, and Ray Nichels had been running wild with unofficial factory funding. While GM’s managers looked the other way, GM’s market share increased to more than half of all U.S. vehicle sales—attracting worrisome attention from the feds. Already weary from fending off antitrust regulators, GM’s top brass cut the cord to loyal shops and drivers. The much-smaller Chrysler Corporation and Ford Motor Company were both happy to have their picks of Pontiac and Chevrolet champions while stoking the factory-horsepower wars absent any competition from the world's largest automaker. Lightweight 426 Dodges and Plymouths and 427 Galaxies and Fairlanes instantly grabbed performance advantages that they would hold until late in the decade.  

Meanwhile, an inventor named Lew Bond was perfecting electronic handicapping in the Northeast, testing his game-changing device in late spring at Capitol Raceway before installing it—along with a multistage countdown device instantly derided as the "Christmas tree"—at Indianapolis Raceway Park prior to the NHRA Nationals. Five sets of amber floodlights fired a half-second apart, regardless of class or eliminator category. Don Garlits added a distinctly sour career “first” by becoming the first foul-start Top Eliminator runnerup determined electronically, without human intervention.

Publisher-editor Doris Herbert, arguably the sport's second-most-powerful individual in 1963 and most-influential female ever, played promoter for a series of Drag News Invitationals that introduced drag racing's four-day "weekend" this season (West Salem, Ohio). Previously, not even the AHRA and NHRA Nationals ran more than three days, weather permitting. At Famoso Drag Strip, the Smokers of Bakersfield conducted the first open-qualified, 64-car Top Fuel Eliminator. Art Malone won it, plus the AHRA Nationals and numerous high-dollar match races (not to mention qualifying for the Indy 500 in the Granatelli brothers' backup car, an eight-year-old Novi V8 roadster). 

We cannot conclude this installment without honorably mentioning the year’s biggest exhibition attractions. As we saw in our previous episode, Art Arfons and Romeo Palamides, respectively, brought the jet age to drag racing during 1962. These pioneers commanded as much as $1000 each for as many days and nights of the week as their two-man teams could dash between tracks and bag the loot. NHRA's late-season decision to ban the beasts altogether from sanctioned strips only heightened curiosity and demand for three-round exhibitions against fuelers and each other. While no wheel-driven car could run within a second of a properly tuned weenie roaster, the local AA/FD hero was often allowed to "win" his second race, keeping fans buying beer and hot dogs in anticipation of a decisive third match almost always taken by the six-second jet.  

The concept of lashing fighter-jet horsepower to nondriven wheels was pioneered by Nathan Ostich, a physician to Los Angeles racers and automotive journalists. One of the latter, Hot Rod's Roy Brock, was commissioned in 1957 to design and help build a Bonneville car around one of the engines entering civilian-resale channels. The duo did static testing in 1959 and hit the salt in 1960. Simultaneously, L.A. lakes and drag racer Craig Breedlove noticed another engine at a military-surplus store and quickly calculated that the same 500 bucks he'd budgeted to build another blown flathead for his '34 Ford could buy 10,000 horsepower, instead.

By 1963, a second generation of jet jockeys was hitting the road. Romeo's Oakland shop even offered turnkey packages. While up-front costs far exceeded those of assembling a conventional slingshot, the engine was virtually maintenance-free. That $25 block that the local nitro hero plucked from Grandma's wrecked New Yorker needed another grand to acquire the 1000-hp entry into Top Fuel, and might survive mere seconds. Buying and constantly replacing the latest M&H Racemasters or trick heads were no longer necessary. Theoretically, any dummy could learn to keep a jet alive and making money indefinitely.

The end of the season found fans of fuelers, gassers, stockers, and land-based aircraft in rare agreement that they’d all just experienced our sport's best year yet. Was 1963 also the greatest single season ever? Decide for yourself as the next episode of Drag Rags drives further into drag racing's golden age. 

*Editor’s Note: Some original, duplicate issues of these & other 1963 weeklies & monthlies are offered by the Wallace Family Archives personal library. E-mail requests to hrd.dave@gmail.com.             

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We'd bet that Cleveland's senior citizens are still talking about the ride that Bob Smith took downtown to simultaneously promote the inaugural Drag News Invitational at Dragway 42 while supplying action footage for The Mike Douglas Show. “Jet Car” Bob underestimated his stopping area, locked up the brakes, and slid through a blocked-off major intersection, miraculously squeezing between two passing cars. In his July 13 Drag News account of publisher-editor Doris (“Mother”) Herbert’s related party, columnist Al Caldwell humorously exaggerated the relative dangers of Smith’s love life and professional life. In fact, Smith got the ride in late '62 from owner-builder Romeo Palamides only after Glen Leasher became the first thrust-powered fatality in Romeo's Bonneville car, Infinity. All three racers plus writer Caldwell came up in the San Francisco Bay area's wicked dragster wars—second nationwide only to southern California's weekly scene, despite NorCal's relatively tiny population base at the time. Incredibly, Smith survived a whole series of horrible Untouchable crashes to live a long, quiet life. (He’s also the only International Drag Racing Hall Of Famer to have his big toe tagged after one of them. Smith said that his distraught sister's scream in the operating room is what shook him out of the coma that attending physicians mistook for death.) Nobody called him Bob; always “Jet Car,” to the end.    


The few photos we've seen from two indoor winter meets indicate big turnouts of entries and spectators, plus big crashes. Three dates were advertised in Drag News for January and February. The main obstacle seemed to be a wall intersecting the shutdown area, just beyond the finish line, that forced each driver to aim through an opening barely wider than a tractor-trailer. 


Whereas unheralded Don Prudhomme's '62 March Meet decision over Glen Leasher and Ted Gotelli was tainted by a controversial "jump start" and restaging, this unprecedented triple seven for new teammates Tommy Greer and Keith Black left no doubt that Tommy Ivo's former tire wiper was the real deal. San Gabriel track reporter Steve Gibbs, the future NHRA competition director, brought the news nationwide in the Jan. 26 Drag News. A gifted writer and illustrator, Gibbs and his family now conduct the annual Nitro Revival at Irwindale Raceway (see event’s Facebook page for details). 

The handbuilt factory hot rods putting the extra "super" in Super Stock were still mostly Ford, Dodge, and Plymouth sedans, plus about 20 lightweight Tempests built before GM suddenly shut down all “skunkworks" support early this year. Thus did so many Pontiac and Chevrolet heroes appear in competitive brands t.his year
This may be the most-sheepish-looking team ever to win a major event, with good reason. Engine-builder John Peters (far right) was listed as driver on the entry form, but never got closer to this seat than laying a hand awkwardly onto the rollbar of the Top Gas Dragster built and co-owned with Nye Frank (far right). The guy with the trophy was the nonracing roommate of mysterious Bob Muravez (center), whose family business forbade drag racing. NHRA and the drag-racing media conspired to keep Bob’s secret in event coverage, but the discomfort resulting from this breakthrough victory led the youngsters to seek a pseudonym—which Steve Gibbs, the aforementioned San Gabriel official suggested to the track announcer, lifting the author's name from one of his college textbooks: Floyd Lippencott. Steve added the Jr. because it sounded good. Fifty-two years later, Muravez-Lippencott was inducted into the International Drag Racing Hall Of Fame as both Bob and Floyd (class of 2015). To this day, the ageless legend runs the Burbank Maytag distributorship founded by his infamously controlling, intolerant father. Nye Frank is gone, but partner Peters still cackles the final Freight Train. The roommate’s first appearance in the national spotlight proved to be his biggest, and last.
Only in L.A. could we see Prudhomme, Ivo, and the Beverly Hillbillies cast. The only thing left out of this early color ad by multitalented San Gabe publicist Steve Gibbs was an event date (d'oh!). Advertising a $1000 (note large type) government bond (small type) was a gimmick that lent gravity to a coming attraction, yet cost the track only $750. A lucky winner had the option of waiting out the bond’s full term to actually collect the grand. As far as we know, they all took the $750 cash.  
After five years without fuel cars in Petersen magazines, with NHRA's nationwide ban still in force, imagine the shock when this cover hit mailboxes and newsstands. Pump gas would remained mandatory for all "official" NHRA competition through the rest of 1963, despite Pomona's "experiment.”
We haven't seen much of CC in this series simply because its quarter-mile content still consisted mostly of hyping NHRA's two national events. Stay tuned, though, to watch CC evolve into what many consider the best drag mag of the late 1960s and 1970s. 
Downtown Cleveland's wild Drag News Invitational promotion cofeatured Joe Schubeck's blown fueler, which performed without incident just before the Untouchable (nose cone visible at right). Publisher-editor-promoter Doris Herbert rewarded “Miss Invitational” with this July 13 photo, followed by a larger, studio shot July 20 that described Cree Franqito as displacing “44-23-35” inches. (You think those guys in the background noticed?) This independent West Salem, Ohio, event is believed to be the sport's first four-day meet.   


Ever notice how many mug shots of Mickey Thompson reveal some, big bandage, plaster cast, braces, or crutches? Here he's flying six feet off of the ground on land adjacent to Lions Drag Strip, which he and wife Judy operated for area Lions clubs from 1955 until the end of this year.  


No mere comic book, Drag Cartoons expertly captured the era's hero racers, "desperate promoters," and industry heavies as recognizable illustrations (though we can't positively ID this fellow). One tabloid-newsprint edition preceded this magazine debut. 


Publisher-editor-artist Pete Millar regularly skewered both AHRA and NHRA, but drag racing's largest sanctioning body was a frequent target. Shown are the first and last panels of a longer strip in the first magazine-sized issue (June-July 1963). Tech officials swarmed the poor kid's coupe, attempting to pressure him into paying for Natural Hot Dog Affiliation membership. They failed, but so did the poor guy's Ford tranny. He winds up trading his soul for an irresistible synchro box and becoming an association robot, here tasked with civilizing the far-off Pacific Northwest.   
Millar's unique combination of artistic talent, draftsman experience, hands-on wrenching, and street and legal racing produced a magazine seriously respected by racers, fans, officials, and manufacturers. (See for yourself at laffyerasphalt.com, the tribute site and e-store maintained by Pete’s widow, Orah Mae, and daughter, Robin.)   
In its second year, PHR continued serving up fuelers and other content absent from Petersen titles while overseen by editorial director Wally Parks (assisted by his unofficial censor, wife Barbara). Imagine his dismay when bankrupt chassis-builder Scotty Fenn, his loudest personal critic ever, resurfaced here as the upstart monthly’s tech editor and columnist.


Los Angeles was still home to the majority of Indy-car builders, as well as the undisputed center of drag racing's universe. Speed-equipment-manufacturer Ed Donovan merged those disparate worlds with a blown-Offy slingshot that could outrun most Top Gas Dragsters and a few Top Fuelers. The promising project was reportedly sidelined by repeated failures of the strongest crankshaft bolts that “The Mole” could find. 
Pennsylvania's York U.S. 30 Dragway was as significant to so-called “stockers" as Famoso was to fuelers. On September 14, Gas Ronda, making his maiden eastern tour, was the star attraction. The dapper L.A. Ford salesman (and former dance instructor) came through with a huge match-race win over Malcolm Durham (far end), Frank La Palomery's L&L Special, and Fred Specio's Thundercharger, clocking 12.21 at 117. R.F. Bissell shot the classic Drag News cover photo.
The weekly tabloid Drag Sport Illustrated, introduced in March at the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships, was the first serious challenger to Doris Herbert's eight-year-old Drag News. Comparatively light on reportage and pages and coverage east of California, the newcomer's advantages were brighter paper, modern graphics, uncensored columns, and big, bitchin' action photos like Bob Hardee’s classic shot of Jerry Baltes at Ramona, California. Watch for more in the next few installments of Drag Rags.


It's true:  In 1963, a couple of college kids, living at home and working out of a two-car family garage, could still dream of lining up against the mighty Stone, Woods & Cook Willys—and winning! Ed Iskenderian took full advantage of the upset in the December 7 Drag News and made heroes of young Gary and Jerry Mallicoat. Although Engle Cams isn't mentioned in responses bearing Fred Stone’s signature in both the December 14 and 21 issues, Jack Engle's style is unmistakable in the text. Hang on tight, the Gasser Wars are heating up!