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"Nitro Noel" Reese - From Player to Pastor

Noel Reese probably isn't a drag racing household name but he was right in the middle of some major drag racing history. Reese states, "The 70's were a busy time for me, helping James and Roger, building my own cars, cars for others, and a few boat engines, as well as trying to hold down a full time job as service manager at Bill Yates Volkswagen Porsche in San Juan Capistrano."

The busy 70s turned into the troubled 80s. Like so many before (and after) him drag racing took a huge toll on his personal life and instead of letting it destroy him, Reese turned to a Higher Power to get his life straightened out and on a new track. This is a personal interest story that most everyone who ever raced, or had their lives go sideways, can relate to. I hope you enjoy it.

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Like most of us Noel didn't start his career driving a top fuel dragster. His first venture into the world of drag racing was this joint venture in 1966. They were high school buddies, the car guys. Owned by Richard Brown (kneeling). Reese took welding in high school and this was one of many sets of headers he built (I'm in leaning on the door handle). They took turns driving it at Long Beach.

 


 

In 1973 and Reese was getting an income tax return that needed to be spent. He found this Bantam, the ex Soul Express Injected altered, less engine and trans for $1100 in Drag Scoop. He built a 359" small block with pretty much stock parts except a nice pair of Traco heads and an A-1 powerglide. At first he fancied himself like Roger as a crew chief and stuck a driver behind the wheel. After Terry, he tried another driver but finally thought he could do this and jumped behind the wheel. The rest is history.

The best run on the car was a 9.22 @ 145mph. Reese used Thrifty 40 wt oil from the drug store, pump gas, no maintenance. Worst thing was forgetting to charge the battery every few weeks. Side note: Striped by Ed Roth.

 

 


 

In 1975 Reese built this A/EA this T-Bucket for Terry Ballas in Newport Beach. Reese met Terry at a party in Newport. He wanted to drive a race car. After some male bonding Terry gave Noel enough money to buy a carb and
distributor to finish his Banatam and Reese let him drive it.

Noel then took him to Irwindale to let him meet James and Roger and show him what real cars looked like. He was instantly hooked on Top Fuel. He then introduced him to Keith Black who took him back to the shop and promptly sold him a new 1/2 billet crank for Roger. A month later bought a new KB aluminum block, heads, and a crew cab dually so they could go to Phoenix for the AHRA Winter Classic which they won. Then it was on to Pomona where they netted a runner up. They then won the March Meet at Bakersfield which led to the Gatornationals, and on and on.

Terry then decided he wanted Reese to build him a car so he got Ron Attebury to build a AA funny car chassis and install a T body.Unique metal products did the tin, and Noel built a 331" small block. Reese thought it might be the hot ticket.

NHRA had just started the econo altered class and before Noel finished the car. Lingenfelter had established the class record with and ex prostock car.

Reese was sweating it because these guys were baaad! They took it to Bakersfield and qualified mid pack. The car wouldn't shift with the BM ratchet shifter and hesitated quite badly. Terry redlighted first round. They then took it to Fremont, Noel drilled the squirters with a pin vise drill, stuck a normal shifter on it and lowered the ET record to 9.01 from the 9.30's and 151 mph from 136. The record held for a long time.

 

 


 

From the little gas altered Reese moved up econo dragster in 1976. His sportsman cars were during the time he was a crew member for the Warren & Coburn top fuel team from 1969 to 1977.

Noel used to detail cars in the evenings after work for the wealthy Newporter's so he could have money to race. Besides giving him money for my hobby, it allowed him to drive Ferraris, Lambos, Rolls, Cobras, every kind of exotic cars to the race track. He never let on that they weren't his.

After setting the record with the altered, one of his patrons called and asked him to stop by on his way home. He handed Reese an envelope full of cash and said "Now go build one for yourself". Thus this econo dragster.

Noel decided to try something different with this car and went big on the engine, figuring he would use one of the Autolite in-line 1425 CFM carburetors he had laying around his garage. Unfortunately it got outlawed before completion and he had to run an 1150, which wasn't enough. He tried to make power other ways and was friends with the Hays (clutch) family in Midway City. Bill's sons were making ignitions. They built an experimental, for Reese, which retarded 2 degrees per thousand rpm. He could then set the initial lead at 50 degrees btdc. It helped. The car never ran like he hoped, best run 8.01 @ 170 mph. Kicked a rod out right before Pomona and he was done with econo anything. He told his crew, "lets go to fuel" and that was it.

 


 

This was Hot Rod Magazine article on the beautiful new Woody car. When Reese saw this car, he never dreamed Kenny Youngblood would become part of his crew. Most people are unaware that this is the same car that ran all the way into the '80's. They were at Indy around 77-78 and Ron Attebury came up and pointed out that the front of the car was going in a different direction than the back half of the car. Roger stepped back and looked at it and decided to have Ron back half the car. Ron did build a 265" wheelbase car, this one was 250", but they only ran it a few races. They couldn't feed it enough fuel and Roger sold it and went back to old faithful.

 


 

 

 


 

1973 PDA Meet at OCIR.

 

L-R: Sid Waterman, Reese, Doug Kruse, track manager C.J. Hart, Race Queen, Bob Brandt and Doug Kerhulas enjoyed the win.

 

 


 

They were definitely the hometown heroes. It seems like the whole city turned out to root for their boys. They just had to wait one more year. WCM would not win the 1974 March Meet but would win the next three in a row. Something nobody else has ever done.

 

In this Drag Racing USA magazine photo, Warren (always kissing the girls) won the next to last Irwindale Grand Prix getting the best of Jim Barnard (who shut off) with a 5.99 at 241.93.

L-R: Sid Waterman, Steve Evans, Ms. Bikini, James, Roger, Noel and Mike Johnson who ran the Warren and Coburn Pro-Stock car.

 


 

Throughout their illustrious careers, James and Roger visited the winners circle with regularity and for many of them Reese was right in the middle of their success.

 

The late Steve Evans, who was the manager of Irwindale during its final years, hands over the cash to Warren. Reese on the left next to Mike and Jeff Miller and then there is Bob Miller (Marvin's brother), and Larry Coburn (Roger's brother) .

Years earlier Bob had returned home from Viet Nam and went to work for Noel's dad, who owned a liquor store in Tustin. Reese used to drive up there on Friday nights because he could sign the tab and visit with Bob. He told him his family was involved in drag racing, and I thought ho-hum. Then Bob told him who they were and we were off to the races, so to speak. Reese went with them to OCIR, they had a big barbecue and that pretty much secured the next ten years of Noel's life. Really, there is nothing like a top fueler!

 


 

 


 

Noel, James, Roger and Ed in 1975.

 

According to Noel, "James and Roger seldom talked in the station wagon other than car setup and how to drive the next round. There was no idle chatter and it seems like those guys from the “older” generation didn’t talk about their accomplishments. Bragging was unknown to them. I realized after Roger died and finding that James’ memory is not doing so good that no one else could tell those stories. Even though I was part of the crew, I was as big a fan as anyone. When we won, which was often, there was never that jubilation, jumping up and down, high fiving, chicken dancing, and all the things the current athletes do. The reaction was the same if we won or lost. Back to the pits, load it up, have a beer and hit the road. I’m glad there are still a few fans out there who are still curious what went on behind the scenes.

I met Jack Beckman at Roger’s funeral, talking alongside the 1969 front engine car I started with. I shared with him one of my first experiences out with the boys at Irwindale, final round, we’re at the far end getting ready to push down and James climbs in and the little arm between the clutch pedal and the lever on the bellhousing broke. It didn’t look good. I had brought a friend with me who had worked at Beacon Auto Parts and he suggested cutting some wire out of the chain link fence next to us. Roger got out the dikes, snipped an appropriate piece, bent it in there and we won. That was my first trip to the winners circle with them. And the beginning of many stories."

 


 

In 1978 Reese took the leap to Top Fuel by purchasing Roy Maddox's entire operation keeping the paint scheme and name - "Ultimate Persuader".

 

Noel's first pass in a fueler. He didn't know you were supposed to put air
in the inner liners. Jumping into Top Fuel you had a LOT of thing to learn and then remember.

Can you imagine buying a complete fuel dragster operation for $8200, including a new KB block, ½ inch crank, enclosed trailer, firesuit, spare parts, delivered to your front door from Indiana?

Reese committed to buy it, but like so many other purchases, didn't have any idea how he was going to pay for it when it arrived. Somehow it all worked out and Noel even gave Roy a $100 tip. Even though it was old, and a lot on it was outdated, it was his, and it made a lot of noise.

 


 

Living in So Cal really had its advantages. Reese had worked for Chick Iverson VW Porsche in Newport Beach and he knew he was moonlighting at night detailing cars. He called Noel in his office and asked about it. It turns out he had his house painted and they got overspray all over his expensive racing bicycles. He wanted Noel to clean and detail them. He knew this would be a rough job, oil based paint and all, so for the fee he asked him for his "card". Iverson had an exclusive "Top of the Tower" card for OCIR. This entitled the card holder and 3 guests to free admission, choice parkeing, pit passes, beer, wine, soft drinks, and nachos, as well as cocktail lounge seating in the tower. This pass was also good at Irwindale Raceway.

That was 1973 when Reese had the Bantam, and was able to race Wednesday and Saturday nights at OCIR and Sundays at Irwindale, all for free. He has no idea how many runs he made at these two tracks over the next couple of years, but it was a lot.

 


 

Reese during the 1978 World Finals at Ontario. When Noel first got the fueler, it was so different from Roger's set up; 6:71 compared to the Super Blower, a 110 fuel pump compared to a -4 pump. Noel needed a tune-up... badly. His close friend and long time crew member, David Barker (who owns XRP), suggested his friend, the late Bill Harrison, who had a machine shop called Hemi Engineering (and a very close friend of Keith Black). Harrison built V-Drives and various race boat components along with running a Blown Fuel Hydro. His logo included the iron cross, so that's why it's on the car in early shots. He was pretty sharp with a fuel motor but had some problems with the booze. After his first heart attack, Sonny Messner, Garlits, and Noel went over to his house to talk about Jesus and serious stuff. Reese doesn't know if it took. He was an awful lot of laughs, Reese hopes he ended up where He'll see him again.

 

 

 


 

Irwindale 1979 with Starter, Larry Sutton looking on.

 


 

In the day, the Rancho Bakersfield was the place to stay (if you couldn't afford the Bakersfield Inn). The March Meet stories from this place could make for a mighty fine and funny book. Here Sherm Gunn, Earl Wade, Ron Van Lips and Noel are throwing a frisbee and drinking beer. What we did before the sun went down.... then it was big boy fun.

 


 

 

In the pits at OCIR with Mark Howard's Ferrari Daytona Spyder behind The Persuader. He went on to buy Garden Grove Volkswagen. Noel's Tower pass had brought him in contact with Kenny Youngblood who fit right in with his motly crew.

 


 

NHRA asked Reese if he could put his car on display at the annual Autorama at the beginning of the year at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. He got a free entry and passes to Pomona so, you betcha! This exposure led to the Los Angeles Times sending a reporter (Jim Murray) down to San Juan Capistrano to do a front page (sports section) article on Noel and his then wife Leilani.

 


 

1979 Winternationals

 


 

Reese got a little sideways on this burnout durning the 1980 Winternationals. The Iron Cross came off after Ontario 1979. A few years earlier Noel used to hang around Roy Campbell's shop (Pacesetter Racing) every day after work. He ran a Can-Am car, and various Indy cars. Noel used to milk him for technical information constantly and bug him to let him help on his cars. He told him he couldn't afford free help. It took Reese a while to figure out what that meant.

 


 

1980 March Meet

 

 

 


 


 


 

Ray Shoutz has a slight led in this encounter at OCIR.

 


 

"Man did it feel good to rev that engine up and let the clutch go. You were in for a ride."

Like many other racers Reese tried not to think about the things that he had compromised on. He had to run the slicks until they were pretty old. They leaked so much air through the sidewalls that they kept going flat in the staging lanes. He found if he put rubber cement on the bigger leaks, they would hold air long enough to make a run.

He did get lost for a while on his clutch setup (who hasn't?) but since he had such a good relationship with the Hays family, they suggested he come up and sort things out with their dad Bill. Once again, why not go to the source of information if there's something you need to know. He got Reese straightened out in short order. Noel never told him that he started grinding down the rivets on the discs because he had resurfaced the floater plates so many times that the round head rivets were touching their counterparts on the next disc and preventing the friction material from contacting the floaters. He was able to get a few more runs out of them that way.

 


 

World Finals at Ontario 1980. The Hemi Engineering stuff is gone and the "Swallow it in San Juan" sticker from the Swallows Inn in San Juan Capistrano is on the front wing. They gave Noel free drinks!

Things were beginning to go downhill but he didn't know it. It seemed like no matter how fast he went or how much attention he got, it wasn't satisfying. He begin to drink a lot, and it seemed like he could never drink enough. Then he noticed some of the other teams had some good looking girls with them so he thought he should have some of those too. It was never enough! He hadn't read Romans 8:20 which says "Man is subject to futility without God. We're created with a void only He can fill".

Another note about this particular picture is the dual element wing. Noel had one of those fiberglass Can-Am racecar beds for his son James (named after his hero). He asked Roger if he had an old wing he could mount on it and Coburn gave him this brand new one. Reese guess he was afraid to mess with his combination. Noel built some chrome plated struts with aircraft fittings and mounted this on James' bed.

His regular wing finally fell apart at Ontario so he had to run home and remove this from the bed. The wing collapsed in the center on the first or second run and it was beyond repair. It didn't matter, the car had a pretty violent vibration. Turns out his helper had tightened the flywheel with an impact gun and the air pressure must have been low. Reese doesn't know how it stayed on the engine.

 

Being old school, Reese loved the Schiefer quick change. He ran it until it started to get some serious cracks and then he put a Lenco Ford in it (they were running a special).

 

 


 

Heading toward the starting line down the push road at OCIR.

 


 

After Ontario shut down the NHRA World Finals were contested at Orange County International Raceway from 1981 to 1983 . Here is Reese during qualifying. In 1984 finals were moved to Pomona where they remain to this day.

As Reese got wider, his car needed to get skinnier. George Britting had built the econo dragster chassis, and was always available and helpful to do any welding needed for all Noel's "brainstorms". He had a theory that if they used center offset rear wheels it might help keep the dreaded shake away. Reese didn't want to buy another rear end so they had Center Line make some center off-set rear wheels and George back halved the car.


You can see how far the frame was kicked in behind the engine, which Britting changed the angle on, moving it up in the front. He also made some new wing mounts, and Noel was finally forced to buy a new rear wing. They took the car to the Bakersfield March Meet to try out all these changes. They had some clutch linkage problems but finally got to make 1 run to qualify and ran 6.06 @ 237 mph. The quickest and fastest it ever ran. That paired them up with Garlits first round and it started sprinkling. They ran them anyway and Noel spun the tires.


Reese finished out 1980 but his life was not going well. At the end of the year he took off for Hawaii with the wife of a friend and settled in a beach house in Haleiwa. He got a job managing the service dept at Volvo Hawaii which came with a demo and the keys to a Sea Ray kept at the Hawaii Kai Marina. You would think that was pretty good stuff. It wasn't. His life was empty. It was that futility thing.


His neighbors invited them to church that Christmas eve, God spoke to Noel, saying "If you drink from My well, you'll never thirst again". Reese responded, "I'll take it". It was that simple and he was off to a new life.

 


 

Heating the tires at Pomona in 1981. In the background is Sonny Messner with hands on his ears. Sonny helped Reese work on the car for a while, then left for a gig with Big Daddy. Who could blame him? He needed the abuse.

Reese had moved back to civilization, tried putting the dragster back together, ran a couple of match races in Las Vegas in 1981 and took it to Sacramento where it shook, broke the frame and he sold it to a guy in Sweden.

Now that he had a new God in his life he didn't need that fuel sucking old one. He weaned him off the stuff for a couple of years and then Roger called him at the beginning of 1984 and asked his to drive his car at the Winternationals. Now he could blow stuff up and it didn't hurt his wallet. Noel did make the mistake of marrying the Hawaii girl.

 


 

Reese in the seat of the WCM car at the 1984 Winternationals.

 

Reese in the Hawaiian shirt and Mark Prudhomme conferring with Roger.

 

A warm up, right before NHRA came by and made Reese go buy a newer helmet (below).

 

Noel's long time buddy Kenny Youngblood keeping him calm in the staging lanes.

 

The man, James Warren. Reese liked him so much he named his son James.

 

 


 


 

On a personal note which only a racer might appreciate. In 1985 the "Hawaiian Firl" left and he was really down in the dumps and was struggling through his days at work and then Sonny called. Herb Parks had just arrived at his house and it was just the two of them and he asked if Noel could get off work, come up, and help them build 2 engines for Pomona.

They were experimenting with the MSD ignition which Gar had them remove before eliminations for sponsorship reasons... but he really liked the MSD. Anyway, they built two engines, went to dinner and Reese ended up helping them at Pomona. That's what gave him the inside line when he decided to come back in 1987, purchase the engine out of Swamp Rat XXX, with all the tune up sheets, his truck and trailer. He was off to have some more fun. Gar was a tremendous help and even made him an offer he couldn't refuse (below).

 


 

In 1986 Sonny called Noel and asked if he could store George Schreiber's Top Fuel car while he was out match racing his jet. Noel said he would if he could run it, providing he could find the parts. He asked George who said ok so it went in Noel's garage. He was thinking of different ideas again, discussing them with Kenny Youngblood on the phone and he said, "You don't need an artist, you need an aircraft engineer". Reese told Kenny, "If I needed one, God would send one".

About two hours later, he was at work at the Mercedes dealer in Mission Viejo and an older man came in driving a new 560 SL, handed Noel his card, and it said Garwood Engineering Aerospace Specialties. Noel told him he thought God had sent him and he said he was God's little helper. Noel took him to his place at lunch, showed him the dragster and within a week he had opened a checking account under "Born Again Racing", and put over $100,000 in it.

Sonny called Gar and they arranged for Jack (Garwood) to fly down to Florida and buy a few parts. Noel had told Don the minimum amount of stuff they needed. The next thing Reese knew Jack called and said he bought the engine out of Swamp Rat XXX, the Dodge Crew Cab, and the big Chapparal trailer.

Noel was out of vacation days at work so he left LAX Friday evening after work, flew to Baton Rouge where these items were to be picked up. Jack had the trailer lettered that night and they left Saturday morning for California. That truck really flew, it had a built 440, 4 speed, Vertex magneto ignition, no a/c, and the radio was useless. They made the Az/Ca border that night, checked into a hotel, slept a few hours, got up in the morning and made it to Dana Point by noon Sunday.

A lot of work was needed to bring the old car up to specs, new wing struts, much larger fuel tank, and Reese doesn't remember all the rest but it was a lot. He still needed to get quite a few parts to complete the running gear. He called his old buddy Robert Goodwin and got a new AFT titanium lock-up clutch assy.

He took it to Bakersfield to renew his license but mechanical problems prevented him from making enough runs and Pomona was right around the corner, so he decided to put Howard Haight behind the wheel. He can drive anything! Their main problem was Jack had run out of money and we needed about $8,000 to finish the car for Pomona. Noel had just met Kristin so he called her and asked her to pray that God might bring them the eight grand they needed. He could feel her rolling her eyes over the phone but she agreed. The next day at work the owner of Pilot Air Freight came in and said he saw an article about the car in the local paper and asked what it would cost to put his signage on the side. Noel told him $8,000 and they were on the way to Pomona.

We realized Gar had sent a 14:71 instead of a 12:71 blower so the tune-up sheets were not going to be exactly accurate. Also we were running the lock-up for the first time with Big's combo. We made a few guesses, made a couple of runs in the 5.50's around 255 mph, which was pretty decent for the age of the vehicle.

The next day, Sunday, he went to church with his new girlfriend (Kristin), children and parents. Afterward they were having brunch at Marie Calendars in San Juan Capistrano and in comes Gar and Carl Scheifer. He had a proposal to re-body the car, leave it with Reese and have him take it and run it at various stadium events for Mickey Thompson. The money sounded good but Noel knew he'd have to talk this over with Schreiber, who he didn't know how to contact on tour with his jet dragster, or buy another car, they were pretty cheap at the time.

As it turns out George wasn't keen on the idea, Mickey gets murdered and the whole deal crumbled.

 



 

Big and Noel in his trailer at Indy in 1987 after he purchased his engine, truck and trailer. That's a story all its own. One thing Reese learned crewing with Roger all those years was everyone had advice on how to make your car go quicker. Very few people actually knew how to do it. If you are going to ask advice, it's best to go to the source. At the time, who knew more than the King of the Dragsters? At $7-8,000 per run, how could the common man ever be able to make enough runs to get a decent tune-up with 32 different sized injector nozzles, and countless other variables?

 

By 1987 Reese had done nothing but look at Schribers' TF car sitting in his garage. But the he put his recently acquired Garlits engin in the car and put Howard Haight in the seat for the Winternationals when he ran out of time to renew his license.

 

 


 

After the experiment with putting his Garlits engine in the Bushmasters car, (George was uneasy with it), Noel put it in Fred Farndon's car (he lived close by). They took it to Bakersfield. Reese was still trying to figure out how he (Garlits) adjusted the barrel valve, so he went to Big for some hands on instruction. The car was an X-Shirley ride so Reese thought it would be a novel idea to bring the two forces of the universe together.

 

LtoR: Doug Watt, Noel , then Fred’s crew guy Tim something, Jimmy Scolaro Fred Farndon, and the little girl is the daughter of Patsy (Sonny Messners long time girl friend).

 


 

Noel and his new wife Kristin at Bakersfield with the Gar engine in Fred's car.

 


 

This was the last trip out for the Gar engine in Fred's car. He had the car sold to a guy in St. Louis and Reese wanted to sell the engine so he put it together and took it to Indy, in Noel's truck and trailer.

This was the trip where Reese couldn't find 8 pistons to put in it to complete it. Doug Watt suggested the ash tray they had been using in the garage so Noel cleaned it up, filed the ring lands and it was ready. Imagine the foolishness of Indy with no spare parts.

Reese happened to tell this fact to Kenny Youngblood who happened to tell Tom McEwen, who happened to be announcing in the tower alongside Big Daddy when they came to the starting line. By this time they were the only ones still running a single mag and pump and a 12:71 blower. McEwen told the piston story to the crowd and they got a good laugh. They made several runs, the best was 5.36 @ 270 and never hurt a part. They couldn't afford to.

 


 

In 1990 Roger cleaned his garage, and extended it so the RFR Special finally fit
on the right side and his new home built car on the left. Jim Murphy ended up driving it even though Reese tried it on for size.

 

 


 

Reese's story finishes with his own words. "It was sure a lot easier to do stuff trusting God to deliver what I needed. I had finally reached a point where I could race if I felt it's what He wanted me to do or leave it alone without going through withdrawls. I moved to Northern California, went to on-line Bible College, and is now the Pastor at Calvary Chapel in Rio Vista, CA.

I love what I do. Try it, you'll like it!"


You can contact Noel at:
Nitro Noel Reese

 

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