Frank LeSueur: Suffolk Dragway’s Ringmaster And “Nitro Man”
Nitromethane can produce incredible results when a mishap occurs. Here Doug Herbert experiences an engine failure and explodes spectacularly on the starting line at the 1999 NHRA World Finals.
Story by Jim Hill
When drag racing in the eastern U.S., and in particular Virginia is mentioned, the name of Frank LeSueur often surfaces. LeSueur was so influential in operating drag strips, creating and marketing events that his career acquired a lofty status among the east coast’s storied track promoters.
But merely organizing, promoting and presenting successful drag racing events was only the appetizer course in Frank’s lengthy career in racing. Those skills were later called upon when he became the kingpin – many say the savior of nitro drag racing by creating a globally inspired business deal that assured an affordable, reliable source for vital nitromethane as a racing fuel.
Should you think the nitro deal was little more than a Frank-friendly, personal profit scheme, think again. Frank LeSueur’s negotiated nitromethane distribution program provided a reliable fuel source that saved Top Fuel and Funny Car drag racing from the very real possibility that nitro supplies was mere weeks away from total extinction! The situation had reached critical-mass when LeSueur negotiated with an all-new and previously untried nitro supplier, halting what could have been an international drag racing disaster!
Such a happenstance would have meant an end to fuel racing at every level, across the U.S. and in Europe, the United Kingdom and Australia. Not only would that have impacted drag racing, but nitromethane/alcohol fuels are also used in the very popular and widespread global hobby of radio controlled aircraft. The sudden disappearance of available nitro fuels would have surely crashed the entire radio control hobby market as well.
Steve LeSueur, son of the late, legendary drag racing promoter and businessman Frank LeSueur, accepts is dad’s 2015 East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame plaque during ceremonies in Henderson,North Carolina.
The looming nitro disconnect was a potentially bad situation, especially for the large number of folks who rely on nitro for their livelihoods. When the gathering storm prepared to strike it was Frank LeSueur who stepped in and found an alternative source for precious nitromethane. LeSueur brokered the landmark deal that created a reliable source coming directly from the Peoples Republic of China.
Such lofty internationally based achievements came later in his career. Frank’s story in begins much earlier, in the 1950’s, in the far less volatile environment of his role as a weekend hobby drag racing participant.
Frank LeSueur’s national reputation was earned as a drag strip promoter and operator, he actually started as a hands-on, successful “little guy” weekend racer. Frank always spoke of how much he enjoyed competing against other weekend racers.
During the mid 1950’s, from 1955 to 1959, Frank prepared, tuned and drove a C/Stock Pontiac at various tracks in Virginia. His success was marginal, in part because the cars he raced on Sunday’s were his all-week, daily transportation.
In 1959 a different path opened up for Frank’s career when he signed a short-term lease on Louisa Dragway, in Louisa, Virginia. Frank’s new role as a track operator forced him to park his racer and his driving career. However, his experiences as a weekend hobby racer, at the very bottom of the drag racing food chain, never left him. As manager and promoter of Louisa Dragway Frank still drove his Sunday-racer Pontiac, its exhaust capped-up and street-worthy, as his daily transportation!
Frank’s management of Louisa Dragway continued until 1965 when he learned that the WW-II military airfield at Suffolk, Virginia had become available for lease as a drag strip. Frank secured the rights to Suffolk airfield and began to create a permanent infrastructure for the track that would become legendary as Suffolk Dragway. Frank’s reign at Suffolk was both lengthy and highly successful. During his reign as “Mr. Suffolk Dragway”, Frank LeSueur and his famous old track played host to some of the best drag racing events in the southeast.
Suffolk became racer-renowned for its superb traction, largely due to its dense concrete racing surface. Like many WW-II era airfields, Suffolk was built to train combat-ready pilots. As a result, airfields such as Suffolk sprung up across the “good weather” Sunbelt region. Most were built hastily, and were quickly paved over with often substandard layers of minimum-grade asphalt.
By contrast, Suffolk’s main runway was poured, reinforced concrete. The military built Suffolk’s runways to take the abuse of heavy bombers and years of landings and take-offs. That meant thick, steel reinforced poured concrete, the same surface that’s now preferred by all major drag racing facilities. Concrete is extremely sturdy, but it also has a much “tighter” grain structure than asphalt. That makes a concrete surface vastly superior and is the reason for its current popularity with all modern “super tracks”.
Suffolk’s concrete earned a justifiable reputation for delivering drag racing traction that was without equal. During its four decades of operation Suffolk earned a legitimate reputation as a “record track”. Racers traveled from afar for its “stand it on the back bumper” grip, and eagerly lined up to test their horsepower on Suffolk’s quarter mile. Over its lifetime Suffolk was one of the east coast’s most popular sites for setting official class records. During its lifetime as a drag strip Suffolk hosted nearly one hundred official NHRA, NASCAR and IHRA record events.
When Bill France decided to step into national event drag racing he recruited Frank LeSueur to work with his new NASCAR Drag Race Division. LeSueur split his track operator duties working with NASCAR, joining forces with veteran eastern race promoter and Bill France’s friend and associate, Ed Otto.
During that time Frank also found time to assemble, promote and book a circuit of heads-up stocker racers known as the NASCAR-exclusive “Ultra Stocks”. NASCAR’s Ultra Stocks were an early effort that combined both Funny Cars and Pro Stocks, and the Frank LeSueur created Ultra Stocks became a backbone of the NASCAR program. Among his Ultra Stock stars were the Bob Banning Dodge team, Dave Koffel’s “Flintstone Flyer”, Wayne Gapp & Jack Roush, PeeWee Wallace, Dave Lyall’s Ford Mustang, Bob Faubel’s “Honker” Dodges and others. The unique no-handicap, heads-up excitement offered by Ultra Stocks may have been the genesis for the later Pro-Stock category of 1970.
Within a few years “Big Bill” France decided to abandon his NASCAR drag racing division, Suffolk was left without a sanction, but the popular, nationally famous facility found an immediate replacement with AHRA. In those days Jim Tice’s Kansas City based AHRA was NHRA and Wally Parks’ main competitor. Under AHRA sanction Suffolk Raceway and its events continued to thrive. LeSueur maintained both the success and quality of its schedule.
As host to near year-round drag racing, LeSueur needed a steady supply of fresh, national reputation Funny Cars for Suffolk. Frank’s track had created a reliable, loyal fan base of tens of thousands. They demanded high quality Funny Cars on a regular basis, and Frank needed to meet that consumer demand. To provide the top Funny Cars for his own track and to bring the west coast’s best “back East”, LeSueur created World Wide Agency in 1970. The somewhat ambitious name was a booking and promotion agency designed to assemble top-ranked match races with Funny Cars. Of course, Funny Cars, and in particular, those booked by LeSueur, were almost exclusively found in the USA, but Frank LeSueur always thought big!
In 1970 Pro Stock was created by NHRA and its counterpart, Super-Stock, in AHRA. Both sanctions wisely adopted then same rules, and the new class immediately thrived. Sensing opportunity, Frank created the East Coast and Midwest-based Pro Stocks into the “NHRA All-Stars”. This early effort showcased the new and suddenly wildly popular Pro Stock racers who had returned to the fan-favorite match racing of the early and mid 1960’s. Also back was the all-time favorite Chevy versus Ford versus Chrysler match-up’s that fans were clamoring for.
His nitro Funny Car shows continued to be big attractions as well. Once again, to insure a steady supply of nationally famous Funny Cars Frank’s booking agency secured top rank stars such as Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, Tom “Mongoose” McEwen, Gary “Orange Baron” Burgin, Roland Leong’s “Hawaiian”, Dale Pulde and Mike Hamby’s “War Eagle” Trans-Am, John Force and “Jungle Jim” Liberman along with the equally popular “Jungle Pam” Hardy, Liberman’s hyper-active, wildly endowed, back-up girl.
It was in the early 70’s that dark clouds formed on the fuel racing horizon, providing Frank LeSueur with his greatest challenge and setting the stage for his finest hour.
Only a few nitro producers remained in business when they suddenly announced their intention to abandon making the chemical. At the untimely news nitro supplies quickly disappeared, prices soared and racers began hoarding drums of nitro. Nitro-thirsty Top Fuel and Funny Car racers were faced with a potentially dire-straits situation. This also jeopardized Frank LeSueur’s race bookings and the fate of his Suffolk Dragway and World Wide Agency. After a frantic search LeSueur’s newly formed World Wide Racing Fuels announced that they had secured a reliable new source for high quality nitromethane. The new source came from offshore, and far-away, in China! The first shipments of the new LeSueur nitro arrived, racers tried it and found it to be the same as U.S. made fuel. Almost immediately the supply and pricing of the precious cackle-juice stabilized.
In the meantime LeSueur scored again when he secured the exclusive distributorship for Sunoco’s Cam2 racing gasoline. The reduction and later elimination of tetraethyl lead in pump gasoline and reduction in octane ratings created problems for racers. High quality, racing gasoline was needed for racers in Sportsman classes and for Pro Stock, where engine compression ratios often exceeded 14.0:1. Sunoco made the CAM2 branded racing gasolines and LeSueur signed an exclusive agreement to market these. Sunoco’s decision to name LeSueur as its distributor was based on his success with the World Wide Racing Fuels nitromethane program.
With LeSueur’s Chinese source the nitro supply situation remained stable for many years to come. LeSueur’s negotiations began with the Chinese government’s international export arm.
In 2002 LeSueur decided to retire. Frank sold World Wide Racing Fuels. The change of ownership was a smooth one and there was no problem with interruption of the supply or pricing of nitro.
Frank LeSueur, drag racer, track promoter, booking agent, distributor and importer of exotic racing fuels enjoyed five years of retirement before passing away on April 20, 2007. He was 75 years old at the time of his death.
Frank’s lengthy and legendary career was notable, but it was conducted mainly behind the scenes. Few even hard-core drag racing fans would likely recognize his name, but two decades later Frank’s legacy is stronger than ever. Today nitromethane manufactured in China remains the sole source, the lifeblood of fuel drag racing and for hundreds of thousands of radio control airplane and boat hobbyists.
The East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame is pleased to honor 2015 posthumous inductee, drag racing promoter, entrepreneur, businessman and visionary Frank LeSueur.