The late Wally Parks was quite a visionary. As most motorsports enthusiasts know, the founder of the National Hot Rod Association devoted his adult life to hot rodding and drag racing, promoting safe, organized competition and reaching out to the community to spread the gospel. Today, the edifice that bears his name, the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum, continues with that vision. It should also be noted that the Automobile Club of Southern California has long supported Wally’s dream and is the presenting sponsor of the museum and the California Hot Rod Reunion.
With the help of many, including the late John Zendejas, Steve Gibbs, Wayne Phillips and longtime Curator Greg Sharp, Wally’s dream was realized. After many years of planning and acquiring important vehicles (a number of which were on loan) that played a role in hot rodding’s growth, the then Historical Services Division of the NHRA first opened in a small industrial unit adjacent to the famed Auto Club Pomona Raceway. Then, in April of 1998, the museum formally opened its doors with nearly 50 cars and a sizeable collection of memorabilia at its current location.
Now, nearly 20 years later, the 28,500-sq-ft facility located at 1101 W. McKinley Avenue in Pomona, California (access at Gate 1 in the southeast corner of the Los Angeles County Fairplex) has grown its collection, been remodeled and embarked on a number of programs designed to introduce American hot rodding to the public—especially young people.
Located in the southeast corner of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds (Fairplex), the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum does an admirable job of telling the story of hot rodding and drag racing.
Today, visitors to the museum are greeted by the Chrisman, Brinker Gallery of Speed (debuted mid-2014), which incorporates interactive displays, sculptures and other important items to help tell the story of American hot rodding. Actually, strategic planning for the “new” Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum started about five years ago, and many components (the Chrisman, Brinker Gallery among them) are being fulfilled. The museum has essentially been organized into sections that tell the story of hot rodding’s origins, street rods, lakes racing and, of course, drag racing.
The museum’s success starts with the passion and leadership that comes from the museum’s board of directors, many of whom are hot-rodding legends themselves. The museum’s comprehensive collection and the stories these vehicles can tell have been nurtured by curator extraordinaire Greg Sharp (unquestionably the nation’s most qualified keeper of hot-rodding history and the subject of a previous “Behind the Scenes” column), but there’s a new kid on the block who’s been instrumental in the implementation of many programs: Larry Fisher, executive director of the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum.
Fisher, who came aboard in August of 2012, is not only a car guy, he also brings to the position 20-plus years of experience working in the museum and exhibition field. He was the CEO and executive director of the Herreshoff Marine Museum and America’s Cup Hall of Fame in Bristol, Rhode Island, and has been a consultant to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan. Fisher also worked for Walt Disney’s Imagineering Group, world-renowned for creating themed displays, and was president and executive director of the Barnum and Circus World museums.
The Pasadena, California, native has racing in his blood. His father raced sports cars with the SCCA, and his mother did some drag racing as a teenager. Fisher spent a number of years out of school working as a machinist and fabricator for the late Dick Guldstrand, a hot rodder who became one of the world’s foremost Corvette and Camaro road racers.
The entire museum staff, including Rose Dickinson, director of marketing and operations, has been an essential component in maintaining its momentum.
Among Fisher and the museum’s goals are to get young people excited about motorsports technology and the many related career opportunities. The museum is planning a science and technology gallery, and developing student programs with Cal Poly Pomona and the Fremont Academy of Engineering & Design, which is a public high/middle school (grades 7-12) that focuses on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education. There’s a huge need to get kids to have tools in their hands instead of a smart phone.
… visiting the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum is a must for any drag racer or car guy/gal.
How can we help the museum achieve its goals? First and foremost by becoming a member of the organization. Membership comes with a variety of benefits and special event opportunities. An important part of the museum’s funding comes from the California Hot Rod Reunion in Bakersfield, California, and the Holley National Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green, Kentucky.
Participation and attendance at these seminal events also helps pay the bills. You can purchase 1320 Club plaques in the name of any individual or family (they’re 5×12-inch silver and maroon plaques displayed in the museum). Donations to the non-profit 501(C)(3) organization are always welcome.
It goes without saying that visiting the Wally Parks NHRA Motorsports Museum is a must for any drag racer or car guy/gal. And there’s a gift shop that has a plethora of really cool stuff. Museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., plus special events and cruise nights. Check everything out at NHRAmuseum.org. When you visit the museum, try to bring along a young person or two.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2017 print issue of the Drive Magazine.
Those who love the nostalgia era of drag racing will recall Ron Rinauro’s California-based ’55 Chevy 210 Club coupe from 1966. Aptly named Blown Hell, this altered-wheelbase shoebox Chevy was a regular at tracks like Fremont and Half Moon Bay. Back then, the car ran a 292-cid small-block with a GMC 6-71 blower, Hilborn fuel injection and a Vertex magneto on 10% nitro. Using a TorqueFlite transmission, the best numbers for Rinauro’s combination was a very respectable 9.73 at 146 mph.
Back in the day, teenager Jerry James was just one of many budding performance geeks sitting in the rickety wooden stands of those fabled raceways. James would grow up and served our county in Vietnam aboard the USS Ranger. One of the things that helped him through those times was that he never quite shook the memory of seeing cars like Blown Hell scream down the quarter-mile.
After mustering out of the Navy in 1970, he went on to refine his mechanical skills racing stock cars and hydroplanes. Then, out of the blue, he was presented with an opportunity to recreate that old Chevy Gasser that was so fondly etched in his memory bank.
To hasten weight transfer off the line, altering a vehicle’s stock wheelbase was done early on in drag racing. This is best remembered by the factory Super Stock wars of the mid-’60s. Factory-backed Dodge and Plymouth altered wheelbase (AWB) cars became widely known first and were quickly followed by Ford and Mercury as the tales of their door-to-door battles filled the imaginations of baby boomers.
AWB Chevrolets were seldom seen because of the factory ban on racing, although a number of independents, including “Jungle” Jim Liberman, successfully ran such cars.
The AWB cars were the jumping off point for what became the Funny Car. It was during the transition point where innovators like Jack Chrisman and Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen changed the entire direction of drag racing. With the overwhelming success of the Funny Car, AWB and Gassers faded from the scene.
While these cars were (for the most part) gone, they were never really forgotten. When they are rediscovered, a flood of emotion usually follows. “I came across the car at a friend’s shop in 2008,” James remembers. “It was pretty ragged. It had been run as a Gasser in a previous life and the body was just sitting on a different frame. It wasn’t even bolted on. It had a fiberglass nose, but it needed replacing and it needed new quarters. It had no doors, glass or interior and the floors were all rotted away. Really, turning it into a race car was the only thing to do.” That’s just what James did.
James hand built the chassis using an S&W Race Cars mild steel back-half kit grafted to the original frame. The rear axle, which was moved up 20 inches, was the anchor point for a Dana 60 differential with Strange spool/axles, Richmond 4.56:1 gears and Wilwood brakes.
The front suspension was fitted with a semi-elliptical straight axle kit using Chevy spindles and disc brakes. Afco coil-over shocks were installed on both the front and rear. Classic American Racing wheels up front lead the charge forward while wide Weld wheels shod in 14×31 Goodyear slicks launch the car off the line.
James knew that the days of running a bored-out 283 Mouse were long in the past. Inside the revived and reinforced engine bay resides a 427 Rat motor combination based off of a stock deck height Merlin block. The beefy bottom end consists of an Eagle crank with Scat H-beam rods and Keith Black 11.6:1 forged pistons.
An 8-quart Ed Hamburger oil pan filled with Valvoline 50-weight racing oil covers the bottom-to-top lubrication. Out-of-the-box Brodix BB-2 X aluminum heads, a Blower Drive Service intake, Mooneyham 8-71 blower and a Hilborn fuel-injection setup makes up the eye-catching induction system. Jones runs methanol that is fed by an Enderle 110 pump from an 8-gallon tank.
One visible departure from photos of the original car are the zoomie-style headers that were fabricated from a Smiley’s Custom Headers kit. Backing up the engine is a Ted Mazzotta-built Powerglide using an ATI 5,000 stall converter. When launching the car off the line at 2,000 rpm, James has recorded a personal best time of 9.17 seconds at 141 mph. Not too shabby for a car weighing in at 3,300 pounds.
“A lot of people like to look, ask questions and take pictures of the car,” James said about being at the track. “My friends were all for it and I tried to build it as close to original as I could, but some of them didn’t understand why I was altering the wheelbase. None of them had ever seen anything like it, which is one of the reasons why I built the car in the first place.”
“Nostalgia drag racing is popular right now, but you don’t see many young people driving nostalgia cars; it’s mainly white-haired guys,” he continued. “It has me worried about its future.” All that’s needed is exposure to these special, purpose-built machines to shift the tide and bring in a new generation of enthusiasts. It is a strategy the NHRA is diligently working to figure out.
Of course, any history buff will tell you that discovering relics of the past is exactly what’s needed to keep alive the rich history of drag racing. There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands of aging Gassers, Altereds and AF/X cars hiding in places unknown. It is vital that these links to the past be resurrected and revived.
It is even more important for the old guard to mentor the next generation on the thrill of building and driving these special vehicles. With the work we’ve seen from Jerry James put into this vintage racer, the future of old school drag racing shines a little bit brighter.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2017 print issue of the Drive Magazine.
The big announcement was that starting with this 56th NHRA Mello Yellow Winternationals and including the 2016 NHRA Mello Yellow Drag Racing Series, the races will be televised by Fox Sports 1(FS1). Fox will be providing coverage for the next several years.
There are more changes. The Pro Stock class has new rules that will help the factory doorslammers recapture their fan appeal. Backup runs are no longer required for NHRA national records.
In July 2015 the fourth president of the NHRA was announced, Peter Clifford. He clearly has a new vision for America’s number two motorsport. The new TV deal should help elevate the sport even further.
During the 2016 Season the NHRA celebrated 50 years of the Funny Car. At this particular event the “Hot Rod Junction” had many nostalgia Funny Cars on display. The legends participated in a Q&A session and an autograph session. In addition, several nostalgia Funny Cars made exhibition runs, thrilling the crowd with long, Smokey burnouts.
The weekend weather was great with temperatures in the mid to high 70s. That was truly fortunate given that only four days later it rained.
The wheel standing Stock Eliminator’s & Super Stock’s were a very moving show. As usual, fans had the opportunity to interact with their favorite drivers as their ticket was an exclusive pit pass to the most powerful motorsports attraction on the planet. And along Nito Alley, food vendors were packed with families goings-on.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the June 2016 print issue of the Drive Magazine.
Drag racers from all over the Pacific Division gathered at the legendary Auto Club Dragway in Fontana, CA. to compete in nine NHRA classes. The spectators and the race cars enjoyed nearly ideal weather as the experienced track crew kept things fast and safe. On the Sunday of the competition, the predominantly Californian champions were crowned. Preventing the California sweep was a pair of Arizona racers, Michael Proctor in Super Comp and Frank Gostyla in Top Sportsman.
The Racers in the Lucas Oil Series earn points toward national and divisional championships with a year end points fund of more than $500,000! Pacific Division racers head to Sonoma Raceway for their next NHRA Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series event, July 22-24, which as of this writing is still a few weeks away, followed by the NHRA Sonoma Nationals the next weekend.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the September 2016 print issue of the Drive Magazine.