Pat Bilbow and Joe Tucci: The Rise Of Lyndwood Dragsters and Altereds
Lyndwood dragsters were simple, sturdy-built cars that handled well and were tough enough to survive the often rough drag strip surfaces of eastern tracks.
Story by Jim Hill
Much of the performance advancements in drag racing speeds and ET’s can be credited to those uniquely specialized vehicles known as “dragsters”, and the art of designing and building dragster chassis. Past and present dragsters reflect the creative talents of the industrial artist as well as the science of structural engineer.
There is no argument that the concept of the “dragster” came about on the West Coast, in California. A crude, ratty car named “The Bug” rests today in the Wally Parks Museum, in Pomona, CA, and many claim this to be the genesis of the dragster. The Bug was all-business. All unnecessary items were stripped from its carcass making it as light and fast as possible. A similar revolution in drag racing was also taking place in the East. It remains unknown “who did it first”, and the date remains a mystery. The point is that it happened across the country and the common denominator were the ex-military men from WW-II.
Post WW-II soldiers and sailors were re-entering civilian life across the nation. Skills they acquired as members of “The Greatest Generation” were now put to use building hot rod race cars. Those earliest days of drag racing were also heavily influenced by that group.
By 1950 the first dragster chassis were being purpose-built and competing in various So-Cal drag racing events. Back East, a similar movement was attacking quarter-mile strips in similar cars. Nearly all were cobbled-up, stripped-down cars with the driver located ahead of the rear axle. All were built in home garages, using rudimentary designs and piecemeal techniques in both materials and assembly.
Somehow the idea of placing the driver’s weight behind the rear axle took shape. This epiphany likely took place when someone realized that 150-200 pounds of bite-enhancing “ballast” needed only to be repositioned to gain traction! Traction was the single greatest challenge, even for the relatively minimal power being generated by flathead Fords and inline six and eight cylinder engines.
This shorty car was built by TV Tommy Ivo, reflecting the late 50’s, early 60’s wheelbase length theories. This Buick powered “rail job” was later purchased by Ivo’s crewman, Don Prudhomme. “The Snake” stuffed in a blown 392 Chrysler and tried to keep it off the guardrails!
“Stick That Driver Out Back And It’ll Go Faster!”
The iconic California hot rodder Mickey Thompson, began his storied racing career as a So-Cal drag racer. Mickey is credited, perhaps inaccurately, as the first to place the driver out behind the rear axle, surrounded by welded pipes. From that cobbled-up pile came the defining shape of the early dragster chassis. M/T’s creation was said to be a “slingshot”, because it appeared the driver would be propelled forward, slingshot-style, between the rear tires should an obstacle be encountered!
By 1954 the true dragster shape had emerged. Most featured a refinement of the “slingshot” concept. Built using tube steel pipes, these cars gained the nickname “rail jobs”. A couple years later, in California, Scotty Fenn decided it was time for a dragster chassis built of quality materials and welded by professionals. Back east, a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania based welding and fabrication shop owner, Patrick Bilbow likewise decided it was time to build a safe dragster chassis.
Scotty Fenn called his new company “Chassis Research”. Pat Bilbow retained his firm’s already established name, Lyndwood Welding Co. The question of who was “first” remains important only for a friendly game of “Drag Racing Trivial Pursuit”. Surviving records from both point to an almost dead-heat in 1957 as the time for the first pro built dragster chassis.
Pat Bilbow called his new dragsters “Lyndwood Welding Eliminator” chassis, and showcased the complete, rolling cars and his Altered chassis in this catalog. Lyndwood offered complete cars, ready for engine installation, or bare frames, ready for home assembly.
It was time for drag racing to advance. This was underscored all too often in blood. Up until ‘57 racers had been homebuilding their chassis, almost always on the smooth, level surface of a concrete garage or shop floor. The results varied greatly, in workmanship, welding, and overall safety of the driver’s compartment. In some cases, hot rodders eager to drop their engines into a “rail job” frame opted for less than acceptable materials.
Some early dragsters were even made from weak, soft exhaust tubing. More than a few failures of materials and welding quality occurred, and several had predictably tragic results. Engines were becoming stronger, purpose-built drag tires were being offered and speeds were climbing to dangerous levels. When mishaps occurred drivers didn’t always walk away. It was time for professional craftsmen to design and assemble the chassis, and for sanctioning bodies to adopt and enforce basic safety rules.
Pro-Built For Speed And Safety
Fenn’s initial offering was labeled as Model TE-440. Bilbow’s first was the Eliminator I chassis. Both had very short wheelbases. Fenn’s California location provided him with a ready supply of the preferred chromemoly steel seamless tubing used in the aircraft industry. Larger sizes of chromemoly tubing was scarce and expensive back east. Because of this Bilbow utilized seamless mild-steel tubing for the main rails in his cars.
Both chassis were structurally sound and built on fabrication jigs. Tubes and component pieces could be mass-produced and welded into place without misalignment during welding. This produced race cars that were accurately assembled and consistently manufactured. The process also helped to reduce the costs. A complete Lyndwood car was $1,095, rolling, less rear tires!
Both were engineered for maximum driver safety. Roll cages surrounded the driver in stout steel tubes, plus a sturdy seat and safety harness. Fenn’s TE-440 utilized a pair of hoops running parallel to the main rails, extending above the driver’s head, a “skid-bar” style. His K-88 had a square-back roll cage design. Pat Bilbow’s Lyndwood cars used a triangulated design he called a “tri-pod”. It featured a round top hoop which he described as helpful in preventing the cage from “digging into” a surface in the event of a crash. This may have been an early attempt at allowing the forces of nature to absorb some of the energy of an upset, while protecting the driver during the crash.
Pat Bilbow’s standard chassis was made with a main upper framerail of 2-1/2” diameter seamless steel and a lower framerail of 1-3/4” seamless chromemoly steel tubing. The tri-pod roll cage was made from 1-3/4” seamless tubing. The standard wheelbase for an Eliminator was 96”, eight inches longer than Fenn’s cars. All components were arc welded and gusseted for added strengthening. Pat Bilbow always said that he would never build a chassis that he would not drive himself. It was a mantra he retained from 1957 until Lyndwood ceased building cars in 1971.
Lyndwood, in particular, was more flexible than Chassis Research, particularly in the controversial area of wheelbase length. Bilbow would lengthen his basis Eliminator design to accommodate a customer’s request. Fenn was adamant regarding WB length, declaring his calculations proved 88” was the optimum length for a dragster. Later Fenn’s TE-440 and LW-109 cars were a bit longer. Fenn steadfastly insisted his theories were correct.
The Long, And Short Of It All
Wheelbase length grew as the cars themselves got faster. A longer wheelbase “slows” the car’s directional response to steering input, reducing the potential for overcorrection. Current Top Fuel rules were set several years ago at 300” maximum for wheelbase.
The outspoken and somewhat eccentric Scotty Fenn also declared in a drag racing magazine article that 180 mph was the absolute maximum speed attainable by a wheel driven car. Fenn’s contributions to the safety of drag racing is without question. His skills as a forecaster were not quite as high on the “Nostradamus scale” of fortune telling.
The Big Leap From 180 To 200 To 250, Then To 325 MPH
Chris “The Greek” Karamesines shocked the 1960 drag racing world with a 204 mph run at Alton, Illinois in this Chassis Research TE-440 car, shown at Riverside, CA. Now in his early 80’s”, The Greek still drives a modern Top Fuel car to 300+ mph at major NHRA events!
History notes that the 180 mph mark fell in the late 50’s, followed by the 190’s and then 200+ mph. In 1960 Chris “The Greek” Karamesines was credited with a run of 204 mph at Alton, Illinois. Ironically, Karamesines was driving a Chassis Research TE-440 chassis with power from a Don Maynard built, blown-nitro 392 Chrysler engine. The Greek’s 204 mph speed was scoffed at by many, but by 1964 Don Garlits set the official NHRA record at 200.88 mph on unquestionable Chrondek timers. By 1965 AA/Fuel Dragsters were easily reaching 210+. Speed “barriers” continued to fall for the next four decades. What might Scotty say seeing a contemporary Top Fuel dragster clock 320+ mph, on a 1,000 foot track and with engine limiting rules!
By the 60’s, back east, Pat Bilbow’s Lyndwood chassis design was going strong. Bilbow had plenty of dragster and Lyndwood Roadster Eliminator orders. This was a fully engineered Altered or Roadster chassis. (Later combined as an “Altered”.)
Engine and all hardware mounts were equally secure, and chassis provisions contained rotating flywheel and clutch components in the event of a failure. Although rare today, drag racing’s salad days produced many ugly clutch and flywheel explosions as horsepower, engine speed (rpm) and component quality became conflicted.
To Trans Or Not To Trans…
Lyndwood Welding Chassis cars could be ordered for use with a transmission or direct-drive. Cadillac-LaSalle three-speed transmissions were favored by many unblown class racers. These were typically run using second and high-gears only. Lyndwood provided shortened and resplined shafts for Cad-LaSalle trans applications, or a complete direct-drive set-up with ¼” thick, rolled steel housing, clutch shaft arm and throw-out bearing.
In the early days many dragsters used a trans to launch the car, usually starting in second gear and upshifting when engine speed reached the peak of the torque band. This “shift point” usually came when the driver “felt the car quit pulling”, and he would upshift to high gear.
David Smith’s Lyndwood B/Dragster ran a LaSalle three-speed trans, second and high gear with its 301 CID Chevy. Smith’s bright yellow dragster, from North Miami, Florida, ran across the Southeast U.S., claiming many Middle Eliminator and several Top Eliminator victories.
By contrast, current Top Fuel and Funny Car technology uses a “high-gear” set-up, but with multiple clutch discs adjusted for slippage and downtrack lock-up points. These are pre-set in the pits by the crew chief. If he correctly guesses clutch settings, engine power and track conditions the car leaves the starting line and completes the run without tire smoke. Any miscalculation means defeat.
Lyndwood cars featured a front axle made from tube steel, secured with 24” wide leaf springs and mounted to a flat steel spring perch pre-set at a 30-degree caster angle, for optimum handling. Front spring action was dampened via a pair of simple adjustable friction shock absorbers to control front-end rise. Early Ford front spindles mounted Lyndwood hand built, motorcycle front wheels. Light, compact Crosley steering boxes were acquired, then rebuilt and mounted to the fore chassis section. A Lyndwood double tube drag link steered.
Rear axles were available in “Early Ford” “banjo” style housing, Olds-Pontiac or Chevy. Housings were narrowed and fitted with shortened, re-splined axles. Brakes were rear-wheel only, with cast-steel drums and backing plates drilled for lightening and heat dissipation.
Lyndwood also offered a number of handy, interesting accessories for their dragster and roadster chassis. Among those were cast aluminum front friction shock absorber arms, a cast aluminum throttle pedal, an aluminum plate dash panel, for mounting instruments, and a Lyndwood built body, pre-formed from .032” aluminum sheet and ready to drop onto the dragster’s rear half. They also offered complete, assembled Ford and Olds rear axle assemblies, direct-drive assemblies, complete Crosley steering systems, widened steel rear wheels from 7” to 11” width, and hand-laced, wire spoke motorcycle front wheels for Ford spindles.
Joe Jacono’s blown Buick Lyndwood dragster was well known to Top Eliminator foes in the east. Back home in West Chester, PA, Jacono spent his spare time building the Ford-spindle, motorcycle front wheels used on many of Pat Bilbow’s Lyndwood Welding chassis.
Joe Jacono’s Buick powered AA/Dragster was a Top Eliminator threat wherever he ran. Jacono was a standout at both NHRA and NASCAR events in the early 60’s. Jacono went on to a great career in dragsters and Funny Cars, today lives in New Smyrna Beach, Florida.
The wire-spoke, motorcycle front wheels were assembled by Joe Jacono. “Joltin Joe” ran a Lyndwood Eliminator dragster of his own. Jacono, of West Chester, PA, hand-built many of the front wheels sold by Pat Bilbow. Jacono had a reputation for being fast and quick with his Buick powered Lyndwood car. Running in A/Comp Coupe class, with a Bantam body hung on the chassis, Jacono was runner-up for Overall Top Eliminator at the first NHRA-NASCAR Winter Nationals, February 1960, in Bunnell, Florida. A short time later he dropped the Bantam body and added a 6-71 blower with Hilborn injectors, immediately challenging eastern dragsters for A/Dragster and Top Eliminator honors at events across the east coast.
Pete Van Kirk’s Lyndwood Altered ran both in New York and Florida. Here the S&S Speed Shop entry has Vernon Jones driving at Miami’s Masters Field. Van Kirk (left, rear) built and tuned the very powerful blown small-block Chevy.
Van Kirk quit drag racing and sold out. Several years later he bought back his original Lyndwood roadster. After refurbishing he built a 454 CID blown Chrysler for AA/Altered, running low nine’s at 160 mph. Here Ben Diener drives Van Kirk’s “Straight Razor”.
Pat Bilbow’s Altered State Of Consciousness
Lyndwood’s Roadster Eliminator chassis was the equal to the dragsters in design, safety, materials, and workmanship. Several of the east coast’s best ran Bilbow’s cars with great success. Pete Van Kirk’s S&S Speed Shop A/Roadster, from Brooklyn, NY, used a blown 350 CID Chevy to claim many Middle Eliminator wins. Wally Lynn’s unblown 427 FE Ford car, from Massachusetts, was another standout.
Lyndwood’s Altered chassis offered all the normal dragster accessories plus a fiberglass Ford “T” bucket or ’32 Ford roadster. For the ’23 bodies they offered a turtledeck extension. For the one-piece ’32 they offered a ‘glass grille shell.
Wally Lynn ran an injected 427 FE Ford in this A/Altered. Lynn’s big New Jersey based Ford had plenty of torque to light up the tires at Connecticut Dragway, near Colchester, CT.
Wally Lynn stepped up with 427 SOHC Ford power for his A/Altered Lyndwood Roadster Eliminator chassis. Don Smith’s “Don’s Speed Shop” in Metuchen, NJ sponsored Lynn.
Lyndwood dragsters were popular with many eastern racers. Among the many were Joe Jacono’s Buick powered A/D, Jim & Allison Lee’s Olds powered A/D, David Smith’s Chevy B/D, Walt Weney’s Chevy A/D, and Joe Tucci’s NHRA record holding Chrysler Hemi A/D. Lyndwood cars were known to be were sturdy, light and well handling. They were also fast, as evidenced by the red-hot A/Dragster raced by Joe Tucci.
Jim Lee drove but both he and wife Allison Lee tuned, maintained and traveled with this Oldsmobile powered Lyndwood chassis dragster. The Lee’s went on to become a legendary Top Fuel team based in The Plains, Virginia. Allison Lee was often honored for her knowledge and maintenance of race engines. Both are East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame members.
Jim and Allison Lee pose in the shut-down area after a tire-smoking run with their Olds powered AA/Dragster. Note no-frills Chevy pick-up push car!
The Rise of Joe Tucci, the tragic end of a skyrocketing career and the rebirth of the Joe Tucci-Pat Bilbow Lyndwood Chassis race team.