By: John Viertel

"Here is a story containing some of our early drag racing history that is told from an entirely different perspective. I think you will find it interesting."
Don Prieto

Anything goes ( and HOW they go!) at the drag strips - hot rods, sports cars, stock cars, stock jobs and the fearsome rail "Thingies".

[The following story appeared in AUTO SPORT REVIEW Vol. 2 Number 1 May 1953]



Much has been made of the gulf between hot-rodders and sports car drivers and the difficulties of bringing the two categories together. Actually it isn't so hard to bridge the supposed gulf-just throw them together at that most typically American of all motor sports events-the drag race.

One recent Sunday I went to two drag strips in a day with Phil Hill, the West Coast's leading sports car driver. Phil ran his tiny red 2.7 - litre Ferrari through the traps at both Pomona and Santa Ana. We saw some terrifically potent machinery in action (and a top-flight job of organizing by the strip operators) ; the hot-rodders got a charge out of the Ferrari and its astonishing performance; Phil collected best time of the day at both arenas. A good time was had by all, you might say.

Our entourage - one Plymouth Cranbrook loaded with spark plugs and tools and one Ferrari competition roadster - turned up about 10:15 A.M. at the Pomona Drag Strip, laid out on one of the gigantic parking lots in the Los Angeles County Fair grounds - a completely unobstructed, flat, gravel-covered area nearly one mile square. The gates had opened by 10 A.M. and by then the members of the Pomona Choppers, who run the strip, had started dealing with the sizable congregation of hot rods, stock cars and other automotive equipment that had stocked up before the gates opened.

The Pomona Drag Strip has been in operation since July of last year. It is the result of the cooperative efforts of the hot-rodders of that city, organized in the Pomona Choppers; of the city police, especially Sergeant Bud Coons, and of the Pomona city council. Back in '51 Sergeant Coons had conceived the idea of providing the local hot rod enthusiasts with a place where they could legally and safely pit their machines against each other and against time - thus getting them off the streets, where they had been staging illegal (and sometimes fatal) drags in the small hours of the night.

The club first leased an airstrip in Fontana, but last year they secured the support of the city council and the director of the fair grounds and even got a $6000 advance against the cost of paving the seven-tenths-mile straightaway. As Charles Griffith, who was presiding over the activities that Sunday, proudly pointed out, the Choppers have paid off the loan in seven months from admissions and entrance fees. Admission is 50 cents, and for one dollar you can run through the traps as often as you want during the day.

As soon as the Ferrari came through the gates it headed for the line-up of competitors at the classifying booth. Here is where the real headaches are made, for the system of classification used in drags and other hot rod activities is extremely complicated - to the uninitiated it seems about as comprehensible as Chinese. Nor is it made any simpler by the fact that these classification regulations vary from drag strip to drag strip.

The National Hot Rod Association, which has recently been set up to embrace all hot rod clubs in the country, plans to work out a unified system of classification for all drag strips. When and if it succeeds, it will mean a great step forward for the sport. The rules worked out at Pomona are considered fair and practical, and have been suggested as a good basis for such an attempt.

There are several different factors that play a part in these classifications: the first is whether the cars are in the Gas or the Fuel class, that is, whether they run on regular pump gasoline, or on whatever mixtures (and there are some pretty radical ones) the competitor may think most effective.

In the three Roadster classes, the Street Roadsters, which must run with full street equipment - fenders, bumpers, lights as required by law, must carry upholstering, cannot be "gutted"-these are in the Gas class.

The other two, Roadsters and Modified Roadsters, are in the Open Fuel class. The Roadsters are distinguished from the Street Roadsters chiefly by the fact that they need not have fenders and other street equipment nor upholstery. Both Street Roadsters and Roadsters must have bodies of the model year 1928 or later, which may not be altered in height, width length or contour. Both must have production radiator shells and grilles at least as large in area as a 1928 Ford. The Street Roadsters must have radiators within these shells, the Roadsters may run without them. In neither class may the location of the engine in the chassis be altered, and both must have conventional transmissions with at least two forward speeds. Quick-change rear ends are allowed.

The Modified Roadsters, which are also in the Open Fuel class, are distinguished from the Roadster class chiefly in that they may have bodies earlier than 1928 (therefore can use the often favored Model T) but these may not be altered in height, width, length or contour either. Engines may be relocated as desired. Transmissions are not required, nor radiator shells so that the Modified Roadsters may have streamlining ahead of the cowl.

Any cars that do not conform to the very minimal requirements of the Modified Roadster class fall into the Dragster class. These are completely "all-out" machines and anything goes. At Pomona there is one requirement: that the car have some type of body enclosing the cockpit. This may be a belly tank or a one-man cockpit like that of an out-and-out race car. (Some of the other drag strips do not even require that much). Furthermore, cars must comply with minimum safety regulations.

These classes are subdivided according to engine size. But what complicates matters is that for the subdivisions, a different system is used for the Roadster classes than is used for the Coupe and Sedan classes and the Stock Car class (to be described below).
In the three Roadster classes, subdivision is by cubic-inch displacement: Class B, 0 to 260 cu. in.; Class C, 260 to 305 cu. in.; Class D, 305 cu. in. and over.
Coupes and Sedans run together. They also are grouped in three classes: Gas class, Fuel class, and Modified class, which may run on fuel.

These closed cars in both the Gas and Fuel class must run stock fenders, hood and grille. Bodies must be unaltered, except that in the Gas class the top may be "chopped" a maximum of four inches. In the Fuel class the top may be chopped or the body "channeled " but only one of these alternatives is allowed, and by not more than six inches.

In the Modified Coupe and Sedan class, cars may run without fenders, may be streamlined ahead of the cowl, may be chopped to a minimum of five inches vertical windshield height, may be channeled, but not more that six inches. In the Gas class no change of engine location is allowed. In the Fuel class the engine may be moved back a maximum of 12 inches, in the Modified class it may be mounted anywhere.

But here is where complexity of the thing arises: instead of being divided into sub-classes according to engine displacement, like the roadsters, the closed cars are classified according to a system of ratios of total weight to displacement-the registered weight of the car divided by the engine's cubic inches: Class A, 7 to 8 pounds per cubic inch; Class B, 9 to 10 pounds per cu. in.; Class C, 11 to 12 pounds; Class D, 13 to 14 pounds per cu. in.

In case of a protest the car in question must be weighed and the engine then disassembled and the bore and stroke measured-and all this for a protest fee of merely 10 bucks.

Finally we come to the Stock Car section: There are the usual provisions that allow only equipment produced by the manufacturer for the general public, with the exception that dual pipes with mufflers and headers are permitted. Bores may not exceed .060 over standard. Engines must be same type and year as chassis. Tops may be chopped a maximum of four inches and customizing is permitted within the discretion of the inspection personnel.. These cars must run on pump gas of course.

But in this class, ingenuity sharpened by a thirst for justice has devised still another system of subdivision. Stock cars are classified according to shipping weight divided by advertised horsepower: Class A, 19 to 22 pounds per horsepower; Class B, 23 to 28 pounds; Class C, 29 to 35 pounds.

By now the Ferrari had moved up in the line and arrived at the classifying stand, its advent causing some momentary head-scratching. Some drag strips, such as Santa Ana, have a Sports Car class, but Pomona does not. After brief consultations it was decided to assign the Ferrari to the Stock Car section, but due to its high weight-to-power ratio, 150 b.h.p. to about 1600 pounds in Class A - though its engine is smaller than that of any American stock car except the Crosley and the four-cylinder Henry J.

The rules as written down provide that open stock cars shall run with their tops up, and the Ferrari is not equipped with any such prosaic device, but this point was not raised and, number and classification having been painted on its side, the Ferrari proceeded to the large pit area behind the starting line. Classification of the other cars proceeded in the same orderly manner, quietly and efficiently, until well past noon, as a continual stream of cars arrived to join in the day's competition.

This system of classification may seem unduly intricate, but it is fair and seems to satisfy just about everyone, and that's the main thing. And when you consider the extremely diversified range of equipment that makes its appearance on these strips, you understand the necessity for it. Indeed it speaks highly for the organizational and, if you will, law-making abilities of the hot-rodders that they have developed something that works so satisfactorily.

Meanwhile the runs had begun on the drag strip. Speed clocked is at the end of one quarter-mile of acceleration from a standing start, the two traps being set to include the last 130 feet of this quarter-mile. There is almost half a mile for stopping, which adds greatly to safety.

What strikes you first as you watch the runs-which, though sufficiently spaced to be safe, still follow in rapid succession, without interruption, until nightfall-is the astonishing diversity of machinery. From midget racer to fishtailed Cadillac-and even a Chevrolet station wagon-all the kinds of motor-driven conveyances that can possibly be imagined by the mind of man came roaring away from the starting line. Several weeks ago indeed, a supercharged GMC diesel truck-tractor made its appearance on this strip and lumbered to a thunderous 63 m.p.h.!

There was a Ford half-ton pickup truck. There were several Olds 88's, one of which turned 79.78 m.p.h. There was a sprint car with a full-house Mercury engine. There was a beat-up '38 Plymouth coupe, the kind you see on a used car lot marked "Cheap Transportation-Runs Good" - but its owner, Ed Tronaas, had installed a Chrysler Six with a three-carb manifold, Howard cam and homemade headers under the faded green hood. It did 87.29, better than many of the more likely-looking cars.

There was a 41 Buick convertible that did 89.54. There were Fords, Lincolns, Pontiacs, Chevvies, a new Dodge V-8 among the post war Stock cars. A Henry J dragged with a Chevvy. Esie Andrews Jr. of the Sports Car Club of California had brought his Jaguar XK-120 coupe and dragged with a Hudson, taking him and clocking 85.64 m.p.h. Then there were the Roadsters, mainly '32 and '34 Fords, some of them turning better than 110 m.p.h. Then there were the modified hot rods, chopped and needlenosed; one even had streamlining of cardboard.

Hill took his first run with the Ferrari just as he had driven it over-not even changing plugs, and a Ferrari's plugs don't take kindly to stop-and-start driving in city traffic. He clocked 95 m.p.h. He then set to work, removed the small windshield on the passenger side, replaced the mufflers by straight pipes, changed the plugs-and turned 99.44. He took two more runs, his speed only varying by the smallest fraction of a mile. His mark remained the fastest time set that day by a stock car at Pomona, and exceeded that of a good many of the hot cars.

But the roadsters and the all-out jobs, those running on alcohol and other racing fuels and specialized for that particular kind of competition, now were really burning up the strip. Smoke poured from burning rear tires and rubber squealed on asphalt. The sharp four-barrel of Hays, Cooper and Yates, which holds the class record for every drag strip in the L.A. area, turned 119.84. A '32 Ford roadster hit 116.12. Lee McCormick's sprint car did 109.75. Then a Dragster pushed up the speed to 124.30.

By now the grand stands erected behind the starting line were filling. The Pomona strip draws about 2,000 spectators every Sunday. Crowd control was excellent, those of the audience who wanted to wander about were kept well back by cables strung over iron poles. And the three clubs which have now joined in sponsorship of the strip, the Choppers of Pomona, the Grippers of Pasadena and the Varmits of Monrovia, account for most of the large number of competitors.

But now Phil Hill, having captured his class on this strip, was impatient for further conquests. He decided to try taking the Santa Ana Drags on the same day. So he headed the Ferrari southwestward. It was a good 25 miles through heavy Sunday traffic.
At Santa Ana the day's competition was mounting to its roaring, smoking climax by the time Hill arrived. The strip there is not a non-profit venture of the hot rod clubs, as at Pomona, but a business undertaking operated by C.J. Hart and Frank Stillwell. It is very businesslike and fast-moving, the atmosphere is a little rougher, and less attention and care are devoted to safety. The crowd is allowed to get somewhat closer to the strip, and more extreme machinery than at Pomona is permitted. Hart says this is the oldest drag strip in the area.

Rules are simpler and briefer. The Stock cars are divided according to displacement, over 300 and under; and according to year, '46 and later, and Pre-War.
Then there are the Gas classes - Hot, Street Roadsters, Full-bodied Closed cars, Pre-War and Post-War - and the Open Gas Class, any body style.

The Open Classes are for cars running on fuel: Stripped Coupes and Sedans; Full-fender Coupes and Sedans up to '34; Heavy Coupes with fenders, '35 to '51; Heavy Sedans with fenders, '35 to '51; Fourbangers, any body style; Modified Coupes and Sedans, any year, and combination.

The Roadsters in the Fuel class: B Roadsters '28 and later; C Roadsters, Model T or truck job; D Roadsters, all-out. And all-out means all-out! Here you saw the Rail Jobs, the "Thingies" - the most extreme form of the hot rod: an engine and four wheels, held together by the barest of frames, engine set well back from the front axle, a seat, with a roll bar behind it, a fuel tank. Period! And the mixtures they burn are pretty atomic, too. Whenever one of them took off the whole starting area smoked like a rifle range.
These frightening-looking monsters have been able to accelerate to the incredible speed of more than 135 m.p.h. in one quarter of a mile. But on this day they were all defeated by Bill Sanders and Bill Matz's rear-engined dragster which has a well streamlined cockpit ahead of the engine.

The diversity of competitors is even greater at Santa Ana. The roar of the engines is uninterrupted as C.J. Hart flags them away in quick succession. A lady, who looked for all the world like a typical suburban housewife, appeared on the starting line, in what must have been the family sedan. She got the flag and accelerated away into the late afternoon mist that was by now setting over the drag strip. G.S.Penrose, whose appearance is that of a prosperous business or professional man, and who puffs calmly on a large ornately-carved pipe as he rockets away in his hot late-model Cadillac, had until that day held the strip record for his class with 91.74 m.p.h. - but finally had to bow to a very potent Ford, which upped this mark by several m.p.h.

Hill set the best time for his class with 102 m.p.h. and won his trophy in the elimination drags against a modified XK-120 roadster and a Ford-engined Glaspar sports car, neither of which clocked much better than 85 m.p.h.

Hill then drove the Ferrari home, having taken the best time for his class at two drags in one day. It was growing dark-and it was too late to head for the Saugus strip.


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