Gassers Pt. 7: California Dreaming
Arguably, the candy apple red, A/Gas Supercharged, 480 CID Chrysler Hemi powered ’41 Willys coupe of “Big John” Mazmanian symbolizes the Gassers of California during the 60’s, shown here at the Winternationals, Pomona, CA.
Story and Photo Captions by Jim Hill
As the birthplace of drag racing, California once enjoyed a bountiful Gasser legacy. From the 50’s through the 60’s, Gassers and the other Street/Modified Eliminator classes were both popular and plentiful.
In particular, California’s supercharged Gassers created a lasting heritage of heroes. Before Funny Cars grabbed the spotlight, blown Gassers were kings, and spawned a huge following. Stone, Woods & Cook, K.S. Pittman, Junior Thompson, Kohler Brothers, Shores & Hess, Big John Mazmanian, Hamberis & Mitchell and what seemed like “a cast of thousands” filled the stands and the pages of Drag News, National Dragster, Drag Times and Drag World as well as the monthly magazines.
Many racers began their careers first in Gassers, and then up through Top Fuel and Funny Car. All benefited from a hot rod culture that created scores of drag strips, and was even reflected in the pop music of The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, The Ventures and others. Hot rods, drag racing and surfing were cool. Even little old ladies from Pasadena drove shiny-red, Super Stock Dodges!
As the 60’s waned the culture changed. The infamous LA smog spurred government to sharply reduce vehicle emissions. Ironically, heavy industry and powerplants were largely ignored.
Other, social changes were also in the works. The ’69 Manson Family murders, the deadly concert at Altamont Speedway and a growing anti-Vietnam War movement changed California, and the nation.
Finally, those ubiquitous California drag strips fell to So-Cal’s real estate moguls. Like the rest of the nation, CA was heading for the suburbs. Once remote drag strips became prime real estate. Noise and traffic were issues, but exploding land values doomed California’s drag strips. In So-Cal, Orange County, old Irwindale, Fontana, Riverside, Santa Ana and Carlsbad disappeared into the dust of a hazy, golden California sunset. Today only a few survive. Even Pomona’s famed LA County Fairgrounds are restricted to a few races per year.
Still, among the faithful, drag racing, at least in spirit, remains alive and well in the hearts and minds of graying veterans who long for the days when raw horsepower, smoking tires and slamming torque were everyday topics in The Golden State.
Big John Mazmanian had this Austin sedan built into a customized “coupe”. Called “The Football”, it was later run by K.S. Pittman. ‘Maz left A/GS fora storied career with nitro Funny Cars and their lucrative booking fees. Note the FC inspired coil-over front suspension. (Drag Racing Memories photo)
The famous Stone-Woods and Cook blown Gassers were legendary. Fred Stone and Leonard Woods, Jr., were among drag racing’s earliest African-American figures. Driver-mechanic Doug Cook joined them, first with this Oldsmobile powered, ’41 Willys. “Cookie” was a constant with the S-W-C team.
S-W-C built a second Willys coupe, “Swindler A” with all the tricks, including the switch to big-inch (480 CID), blown Chrysler Hemi power and a B&M Hydro-Stick trans. “A” was ink well-deep, black lacquered, and bad-ass fast! Long time friend of Stone and Woods, Jack Engle, designed and ground special roller cams for the nationally famous team. Doug Cook is on the left.
60’s A/GS rivals gathered at the NHRA Nationals for a hotly contested class shoot-out, to claim national superiority… and sign contracts for match races with the scores of track promoters on hand! Here Doug Cook wheelstands against NY standout Jack Merkel’s ’33 Chevy powered Willys at the ’65 Nationals.
The rivalry between S-W-C and “Ohio George” Montgomery was fierce in the 60’s. In spite of big, blown Chrysler power in the S-W-C Willys, George’s blown small-block Chevys often prevailed at Indy. His ’33 Willys wound up with a blown, 427 SOHC Ford “Cammer” before George went to a ’66 Mustang.
By 1967-68 the high-water mark for A/GS rivalries had led to abandoning the classic Willys bodies for sleek, modern sheetmetal. S-W-C Mustang had Bones Balough driving. Many claimed this killed the A/GS class, but Nitro Funny Cars were more to blame as fans craved smoke, flames and noise!
There was no more feared or competitive AA/Street Roadster than Hugh Tucker’s ’29 Chevy bodied, (’32 Ford grille shell) blown Olds powered car. Tucker later modernized the car with a big, blown Chrysler Hemi and the domination continued. It’s since been restored and appears at nostalgia events such as the annual California Hot Reunion, held at historic Famoso Raceway, outside Bakersfield.
Not all California Gassers were blown monsters. Pete Carlson’s bright yellow “Canary” sported classic ’32 Ford, injected small-block Chevy power.
Before Doug Cook gained fame as Stone and Woods’ driver he ran this bad, blown ’41 Studebaker sedan. Cookie’s car reflected the rules-required street legal items such as its California license tag.
Not exactly what classic American author O. Henry had in mind, this Henry-J gasser ran C/Gas, here at Fremont, CA, for owner-driver Tom Olson.
More Fremont action has Olson taking on a ’66 Mustang fastback, with the famed Fremont Raceway tower in the background. The northern CA track was running under AHRA sanction at the time. Track owners were known to switch sanctions for better rates, or major event dates.
The “Gold Rush” Model-A Ford two-door sedan plants the tires on Fremont’s sticky starting line against a Willys coupe. American mag wheels up front and front-end lifting power says this was a serious C/Gasser!
Keeping alive the CA blown Gasser tradition was the bright yellow Brasher & Cummings ’33 Willys coupe. “BC” was identified with the newspaper cartoon stone age characters.
L.A.D.S., best known as “Lions” or “The Beach” was Lions Associated Drag Strip, on the Long Beach harbor property. This fabled track finally closed in the 70’s but remains as one of drag racing’s most hallowed grounds. Bowlan & Bates’ A/Gas ’41 Willys pounds out a run with the famous sign in the background. Yes, the grandstands were that close to the action!
One of the most recognizable A/Gas coupes in the nation was this ‘Willys coupe. Grist Brothers chopped the top and added sharp, black paint.
Sleek profile of Grist Bros. Willys made it fast. Power from a 430 CID Lincoln engine pushed the car to NHRA A/Gas record and frequent appearances in ads for “Dempsey Wilson Racing Cams”.
Old Gassers never die… the often become classic street rods. The Grist Brothers’ Willys found a new home, a continent away, as a beautifully appointed street rod in the Atlanta, Georgia area!
Hamberis & Mitchell’s ’33 Willys was light and fast, powered by a blown small-block Chevy, shown here at the ’66 NHRA Nationals, Indianapolis Raceway Park, Clermont, Indiana. Note comic engine crank handle. Mike Mitchell later became a Funny Car legend as “World’s Fastest Hippie”. (Jim Hill photo)
For over 50 years the drag strip outside Bakersfield, CA has hosted historic events such as The March Meet and now the California Hot Rod Reunion. Here, in the 1960’s, a primered, just-finished Willys shows why the Famoso track has been known for its traction.
Ron Rinauro’s ’33 Willys A/GS ran often at Fremont. Like his famed “Blown Hell” ’55 Chevy, a Ted Gotelli built blown engine provided power.
The “Blown Hell”, altered wheelbase, ’55 Chevy preceded current Pro/Mod racers by a couple decades. Driver Ron Rinauro gained fame with power from famed fuel engine builder, “Terrible Ted” Gotelli, from the San Francisco Bay Area.
W-a-y up in front, Mike Bamber’s “Silver Dollar” Willys pick-up has gained more fame than it did when it haunted California drag strips. The ‘Dollar starred in a recent Hot Rod Magazine story on the 60’s blown Gasser cult.
The Jim Shores & Skip Hess ’48 Anglia used blown Chevy power to gain a reputation as an A/GS headliner. Wheels-up launches and big-noise were its trademark.
Jim Shores later ran a chopped-top, blown big-block Anglia called “Fireball Shores”. Still intact was the original car’s wheels-up launches.
Skip Hess later built this 427 SOHC Ford powered ’66 Mustang for A/GS. Hess enjoyed building bicycles, and founded the company that made the famed “Mongoose” bikes, named for Tom “Mongoose” McEwen! Here Skip makes a run at Orange County International Raceway in “Revell Kit”, which became a Revell plastic model car kit.
All-steel front end and unblown small-block Chevy power was the starting point for the Herrera & Sons ’48 Anglia. “Doug’s Headers” was original header firm founded by Doug Thorley.
A few years later Herrera & Sons fielded this lace-painted beauty, a chopped-top, blown Chrysler powered Austin sedan, in A/GS. Jack Bayer built the engines and sponsors included Art Carr Transmissions, Contemporary Fiberglass and Jardine Headers. Halibrand mag wheels, highly polished, set off the great paint scheme.
Larry Hedlund’s ’57 Chevy was a regular at Lions Drag Strip, in Long Beach. The “Gasser Passer” ’57 Bel-Air ran 10 lbs. per CID D/Gas and 11 lbs. E/Gas.
Kohler Brothers’ “King Kong” started out as an unblown B/Gasser with injected, small-block Chevy power before adding blown big-block Chevy for A/GS. (Super Chevy Magazine pic)
Now lovingly, faithfully restored by Carlos and Mary Cedeno, “Kong” remains a striking example of Gasser craftsmanship and beauty. Narrow Cragar S/S wheels up front and deep Cragars rear set off the perfect paint.
Seems like ’33 Willys coupes were found on every street in California during the 60’s, and most became Gassers! Here’s the Warren-Miller-Warren ’33.
Current site of the NHRA Winternationals, since 1961, the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds was opened up in the late 1950’s, to give LA street racers a safe track for drag racing. Period cars shown here are very typical of the line-up of drove-it-in-the-gate cars during the salad days of the 50’s.
By the early 1960’s NHRA’s Winternationals had found a home in Pomona. Here the famed Grist Brothers big-inch Lincoln powered, chopped-top Willys takes on a C/Altered Model-A during Little Eliminator running. Note big Winternats banner and at rear, “Capitol Records” sign!
Kenny Sherrill’s ’57 Corvette causes heart attacks among hard-core classic Corvette resto-only fans! The beautiful C1 car ran A and B/Modified Production classes in California Modified Eliminator battles. (Jim Hill photo)
Steve Korney’s “Goldfinger” was built for match racing but ran often in BB/Altered with blown Chrysler Hemi power.
If you needed Schiefer clutch help on the West Coast, Earl Ritchey was your man! Schiefer’s factory rep Ritchey ran this E/Gas C2 Corvette in Modified on his off weekends.
Butch Thunney’s famed red-white-blue, straight-axle, fiberglass front cap ’55 was a C/Gas staple in Street/Modified Eliminator for several years. Injected small-block and a four-speed were his calling cards.
K.S. “Tiger” Pittman found match race bookings easily available, and moved his operations east. KS joined the S&S Racing Team, from Falls Church, VA while running this ’33 Willys, blown 480 CID Chrysler powered.
Bob Lambeck was a vital part of the late, great Dick Landy’s Pro Stock team before setting out on his own. Here his A/Modified Production, ’68 Barracuda leaves the Indy line at the NHRA Nationals. (Jim Hill photo)
Funny Car headliner “Lil John Lombardo’s beginning fare wasn’t quite as glamorous, but probably just as much fun! Here his ’37 Chevy Gasser gets away at the Winternationals, Pomona.
The Mallicoat Brothers ran this ’68 Barracuda in AA/Gas (A/GS) at tracks in California and on road trips back east.
The Marrs Boys’ Willys B/GS sits behind Miss NHRA Winternationals and her motorized whatchamacallit. Honest, this is about the race car!
Marrs Boys later ran this C2 Corvette with blown Chevy power for C/Gas Supercharged. Blair’s Speed Shops, popular So-Cal hot rod parts sellers were sponsors along with Jardine Headers.
This old, faded photo from Dave Facey shows the MGM Racing Team, C&O Hydro, ’40 Willys truck pushing back after a run in B/GS at Winternationals.
Gary Burgin would later gain fame with his “Orange Baron” nitro Funny Cars. Here’s his early effort, an A/GS Willys in the pits.
This ’41 Willys, running in D/Gas, out of Antelope Valley Speed Center, was an attractive, flashy regular in California Modified Eliminator racing.
Panella Brothers ran a Southern Cal trucking business, and ran this famous blown Chevy powered, B/GS Anglia, “Il Padrone” in Super Eliminator. Driver Ken Dondero was a master of 8,500 rpm, power-shifts with a modified, crash-box Muncie M-22 four-speed.
Bob “Bones” Balough gained a reputation as an accomplished driver of numerous blown Gassers. The Bones-Dubach-Pisano ’33 Willys was one of Bones’ best efforts. The late Joe Pisano, founder of Venolia Pistons, was a partner in the 392 Chrysler powered A/GS car.
Bones is half a length behind Junior Thompson’s Austin in this A/GS face-off. Arrid background says this could be Riverside, or Carlsbad tracks.
Teixeira Brothers have long been known for immaculately finished, fast race cars. Their B/Gas, ’41 Willys carries stock Willys front cap trim, headlights and a custom grille with Chevy power inside.
NEXT WEEK: The booming, Nostalgia Gasser movement!