WAGS WANDERINS GOES BACK TO MY LATE TEENS SOME 55 YEARS AGO AND MY DRAG RACING START
January 29, 2017
By Ken Wagner
Wags Wanderings 6
Iíve been thinking about my Wags Wanderings FB page that I have been MIA on because I am getting kind of out of sync with racing and donít have the weekly races to enthuse me and keep me focused. Iím somewhat lost with no traveling and no one to talk about it to. The last couple of months I have been organizing my many pictures I have taken over the years for easy access to use when a story requires it. Maybe this is a story, but not a sprint car one. During this long process of searching thru cdís and computer backups and putting them where I can find them, I came upon a box of a lot of early 60ís drag racing pictures from Mo Kan Dragway in Pittsburg, KN where I did a little racing and a lot of watching the hot cars of the time. I had an old brownie camera of all things and it was far from todayís digital models, but I scanned them and filed emí away. I know there is a lot more, but I canít seem to find the rest. Anyway here are a few with fond memories from my late teens.
For the old photos by Wags in early 60ís Click here to view.
While I was still in college, many friends told me about Coffeyville, Kansas where the drags were and some kids took their cars to run there. Over time I began reading about it and got interested. A friend of mine named Ted and I began investigating and talking and collecting things for a race car. I hadnít gone to a race yet, but I was involved with Ted planning construction. He worked at a manufacturing plant that had chrome molly tubing in the warehouse and he designed and welded together a little altered chassis and we continued to gather parts. By now we headed to Mo Kan Dragway to learn more and see stuff. Mo Kan Dragway introduced me to my first drag race, and then it was where I first started to race and then I saw the shocking top fuel racing there that hooked me totally until Lions closed years later in California.
About once a month the top cars from Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Illinois and even farther away would show up as I spent the years 1960, 61 and part of 62 driving from Springfield, Mo where I lived and went to school at Drury college. It was a mere 75 miles to the strip so it was a 2 hour trip in a car. When we started towing our racer on what was the old two lane route 66 highway in those days, it took us longer because we couldnít pass anyone. They started building the interstate 44 while I was living there, but I only did some street racing in m 56 Chevy out there at night as it wasnít opened to traffic until I came back for a visit a few years later. I got married, got a job and went racing until I returned to my California roots in 62 I think.
I donít know what they paid Top Eliminator at Mo Kan, mostly because it wasnít a big deal back then, but I know little eliminator, the class we ran, paid $25 to win, so maybe top Eliminator was $500? The top fuel and gas winners ran each other for the overall Top Eliminator in those days. Bob Sullivan, Lou Cangalouse, Crietz Automotive, Rod Stuckey, Bobby Langley and the twin Chevy gas dragster of Benny Osborne were the big dogs back then. Other hot cars dropped in, with more than 20 hot cars in the pits each week, but those drivers above were the dominating runners that I remember most. Even when we raced, we never left until the last race was run and it was nearly dark. Rod Stuckey built a lot of the fast guys cars in the Midwest at that time, and he also drove a top fueler, until he died in Arizona. I think it was an airplane crash not racing. His cars had a signature push bar that looked like a wind up key on the back, and they all had them.
The first time I went when the hot cars were there also, I was mesmerized so much by watching them that I missed my 1st round class run that day, as I hung in the little grandstand too long and totally missed racing that day. When Bob Sullivan made a low 8 second pass at somewhere near 180 MPH I was really shocked and got locked in to the next run. I donít have much memory of the times back then except what I wrote on the pics I took, but until I came back home to California and saw the very first 7 second run, low 8ís were the best I saw at Mo Kan. Crietz from Tulsa ran an Olds in those days and couldnít catch the blown Chryslers, but they got better and better and later ran the big hemi. Lou Cangelose was one of the fastest until he died at Ozark Dragway, south of Springfield, when it appeared he passed out from the fuel fumes and crashed into a tree. I was there and that made me realize how exposed the drivers were, even though they already had real roll cages by this time. I was very sad because I talked to him each race as he was a wild and funny guy. He wasnít the last driver I knew personally that died racing, but it never got any easier to this day.
I and my friend Ted would spend all our time reading Drag News and keeping up with the hot cars around the country. This was not long after some genius said 160 MPH would be as fast as these ďrailsĒ would go, but we knew better. Ted and I ran a little altered until one day John Weebe showed up at Mo Kan with a blown Chevy altered in our class. He beat us so bad, we went home and thought about what was next. No altered had beat our little 265 powered unblown car before and it was a shock. When we realized we were talking about cubic dollars to step up, I decided I wasnít up to my half of a new motor on my meager salary of $1 and hour, while he had an engineerís salary and some help from his family, so we split up. He said I could still drive, but our agreement was to split the cost and I just couldnít afford it then. Years later I saw where he was running a top fueler in Florida with someone else and thought with a little money, I could have been there. NOT! I gave him all of my share of the car and went on my own. I never saw him again to this day, because it wasnít long until I was moved west and we lost touch.
I still went to the drags with a neighbor who had a B Gasser 32 ford pick-up with an Olds engine and 6 single carbs. It was a heavy dog with the front end on the ground and he ran high 18ís with it, not very competitive. One night he was thinking about improving performance and we sat in the garage and talked. All of the gassers of the time were front end high to allow quick weight transfer and even some wheelstands for better traction. It didnít help that he was 6í 5Ē tall and weighed over 250 in the low slung hot rod. So we jacked up the front end with some truck shocks and moved the fuel tank and battery to the back, moved the seat up higher and made it look like a gasser. He, remember even then I didnít do mechanical stuff as I busied myself cleaning and polishing his car, changed out the carbs to 2 4 barrels and it even sounded faster in the garage. When we went to the dragstrip in Ozark the next week, his car was way different. He had toiled with many losses over time, some of which I saw when he went to Mo Kan, but this would be a new day. The first run was 16 something and we knew he was going to do good. He let me drive it once and I got it under 15, but it was a handful and I felt uncomfortable with it. I declined driving further at that point and he later won the class for the first time and we went home happy. He later crashed the car as he got going too fast for the cars stability and bad brakes and quit racing.
I met Larry Phillips at Ozark that day as he pitted next to us, He was an up and coming local stock car driver who over his long career won so many races he rivaled Dick Trickle later on running that Midwest circuit. Any way he had an old 37 green Chevy running in A gas. As it happens he had a painted piece of cardboard for a scatter shield and the clutch practically blew his car in half when it exploded later in the day. He had guts, but was just out playing and didnít set the car up with the regulated scatter shield. I got to know him more as my father in law at the time was an old stock car racer, who actually won the first 100 miler at Springfield plus a lot more before he retired. I went with Earl on Fridays to watch Larry dominate the local stockers, including the reigning Don Kordalis, at the Springfield Fairgrounds until we moved. You can google him as he was one of the best.
I was working at a Mercury dealer parts department in Springfield those days to pay the bills. My supervisor was another local stock car and modified driver named Dean Roper. He had won the USAC stock car title a couple of times later in his career, but drove anything fast on dirt and Mondays was reveal time as he told me the stories of his Friday/Saturday night racing ever week. I saw him race a modified at Joplin one time and since my hobby was building plastic models in those days, I made him one that looked exactly like his modified. I was very creative with my models and won a lot of trophyís for my unique not yet available race cars and paint jobs, so his was way before they started making them in kits.
Years later Dean recognized me at the Chili bowl in the early 90ís and we enjoyed some time together for years after that. His son was killed racing and it was heavy in his heart. He started getting my Wagtimes newsletter and came to a few CRA tour races in the mid-west to see me and watch our racing. The last time I saw him was at Wichita, Kansas for a CRA show when he showed up and he told me of the Antique races he was doing in his stock car world. He also told me his heart was a problem, but the doc said racing was fine and his wife told him to quit. A few weeks after that, I read he passed away one race day at the wheel of his race car and I knew he was smiling when he went. He was a big deal in that world and the news reported was very flattering of his long career.
It was about that time that a friend of mine whose name is long forgotten, wanted to go to Paragould, Arkansas for a famous cheater drag race in the field of a farmer there where the cars all had chains and locks to keep people from seeing what they had under the hood and the raced heads up? He wanted to run his brand new 61 Chrysler Hemi and see how the 413 measured up. After towing for hours to get there, we unhooked the car and fired it up, but it wouldnít move? The transmission was trashed as keeping it in neutral didnít keep it from being destroyed. We watched a few hot 409 Chevs, 406 Fords; a lot of mid 50ís Chevís and many Mopars chose off to see who was fastest. No timing lights as the rains had killed the wiring and the short strip meant the farmer had to get his tractor out once in a while when one of the cars didnít stop in time and ran off the end into the muck and couldnít get out by themselves. It was a hoot, but the winner was a local 56 Chevy that day and they all sounded good. My friend somehow got the warranty to fix the transmission and later went back down there to win the $1000 put up for the days champion. He was pretty good and later was a local super stock winner until he ran out of money. The place was literally in a field with only the pits and drag strip paved, so was a little bit eerie. It had no grandstands and was packed with cars wanting to race.
I had been dreaming about going Texas for the AHRA ďNationalsĒ since I first read about it in Drag News, so when a friend of mine named Roy, who was a former little eliminator competitor, wanted to take his B Gasser to compete and would I go to help, hell yes! I hopped in his rig and off we went on a Tuesday night after work. We pulled into Green Valley as the sun rose on Wednesday and drove into the pits to settle in and catch some sleep. He had a grey primer colored 40ís pickup with a nasty Chevy engine that was beating all comers at Mo Kan and Ozark, so he felt lucky. His rig was a new pickup with a camper shell and a nice open bed trailer and it tracked well so the trip was easy. The race was 4 days long so we would be sleeping in the truck and had a couple of coolers full of food and sodas, so it was my first overnighter and more importantly, my first look at a lot of famous top fuel and gas cars from California and Florida and more.
We got up early Thursday and he immediately took a trip down the strip and ran a good one and we waited for eliminations to start for us later in the day as he worked over the motor and suspension, stuff I had no clue on, but I watched with interest. In the meantime I took off and sat in the grandstands to watch many familiar thru Drag News famous cars smoke their tires and entertain me. Wow, I was in heaven as over 100 fuelers and I donít know how many top gas cars ran and included probably another 200 lower class dragsters. There were tons of gassers and roadsters to watch too! Here is a list of few major names of the times: Don Garlits, Connie Swingle, Art Malone, Stellings and Hampshire, Eddie Hill, James Warren, Bobby Langley, Kenny Safford, The frantic 4 with Norm Weekly, Tommy Ivo, Don Prudomme, Rod Stuckey, Vance Hunt, Bob Sullivan, Al Wait, Connie Kalitta, Crietz Auto, Kingston and Cain, Lyle Fishers Speed Sport roadster, Mayhew and Dyer, Benny Osborne and a bunch more I canít remember, but many in the hall of fame of drag racing. It was unbelievable, to say the least.
Vance Hunt had the only tragedy of the race that I can recall, but it was sad. His car was driven by a young man whose name I canít remember, but they were fast the first qualifying run. Unfortunately this strip ended with a slight uphill right up to the road that crosses beyond it where all fans and competitors come into the track. There was a huge cargo net or some thick rope thing that gave you a place to stop against it, if you didnít stop and needed help. Vanceís car used that net to stop on Thursday when the chute didnít come out and it crunched the front end pretty bad. They worked all night to rebuild the car and he came back out the next day to try again. This time he set another fast time, the chute didnít work again and he didnít stop again. Unfortunately he avoided the net to save the car, ran thru the little fence to the side of it and crossed the road. Then he ran very fast into a tree, killing him instantly. To say we were shocked is an understatement as the net was there for a reason.
My buddy Roy had me busy helping him with his races and he made another pass early on Friday and let me make one too, after that. The car was right on the record so he was ready to do battle. I would have loved to drive that one because it was fast and hung the wheels for the first 100 feet or so, and again in second gear, and was pure fun. He had 15 or 20 cars in his class, but marched thru them to the final on Friday. He would run Saturday morning against the feared Biggers Brothers famous 32 Ford out of Kansas City that he had a lot of battles with probably splitting wins, and then the little eliminator on Sunday if he won his class final, and he did. Naturally, we were both in the grandstands for the hot cars and they were stunning to me!
First thing Saturday he wasnít feeling well with a bad stomach, must have been those tacos from a push cart rolling around the pits, but I got him settled in the car and he beat the Biggers Brothers and went right into the little eliminator first round. Still sick he wanted me to drive, but they wouldnít allow a diver change and he was not with it, and lost when he killed the engine on the start. I drove it back to the trailer and put him to bed in the truck. I didnít see him until late Sunday when it was time to go home and I drove all the way while he needed a few stops. It was great racing as the California cars were strong and I canít remember who won but it was the best fun I had in a while. As soon as we moved to California, the first thing I did was go to lions! There was also San Gabe, and plenty more strips to visit, but the hallowed grounds of Lions Drag Strip was the best.
There was something about the smell of nitro fumes and smoking rubber off the tires and the high speed whine of the blowers as cars were so fast and the races so fun to watch. I went every Saturday for years to lions and have somewhere in this house every ticket from there and most were number 000001 as I was always early and first in line! Actually, I have every ticket to every event I ever went to including the World Series, ball games, other races etc etc. In those days I watched the races from start to end and went home and wrote down all the hot car times in my race result book. That was amazing, but I did it for years and for the life of me, I donít know where it got lost, and who knows it might be in a box somewhere.
I was there the night Garlits front motor fueler exploded and broke in two and took part of his foot off. It was a game changer for drag racing because up until then all the rear motored cars failed to go as fast as the front motored ones and engineering wasnít up to it just yet. They were unstable as well. Don Garlits designed his new rear motored car in the hospital in California while waiting to recover enough to go home to Florida. When his new car debuted the next season, he was suddenly quicker than everybody and they all rushed to build their own versions. The newer tires didnít allow the full pass smoky runs that were the signature look for me in those days and I realized I didnít like the change much. As time went on and Lions closed for reasons still not totally clear, some friends took me to Ascot and Ēshazam ď a new love was born that lasted until now as I sit around and conger up memories of the good old days. Itís why the California Hot Rod Reunion at Bakersfield, Famosa Drag Strip still drags me there every tear.
Now look at the pictures I carefully took some 50 plus years ago that I can see in my mind as if I was still wandering around the pits with that brownie camera I treasured at the time. Not very artistic, but maybe some of you remember a few of them.
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