Story by Jim Hill
Joe Tucci’s success at the end of the 50’s and in 1960 brought him considerable acclaim for his noteworthy performances, at least on the east coast. Out in California, most were skeptical of outsized speeds reportedly recorded by Tucci. That skepticism never bothered Joe, he just kept on working, tuning and going faster. That dogged determination earmarked Joe Tucci’s racing career and his life after racing.
Joe Tucci’s first fast hot rod was this ’32 Ford coupe. Joe built a six-carbed, 392 Chrysler hemi and used this car as his learning platform.
Tucci’s first fast ride was a ’32 Ford five-window coupe. Channeled, fenderless and riding low, the ’32 ran B/Altered with a 392 Chrysler and a welded log-style intake manifold upon which rested six Stromberg carburetors. Tucci built the car following his tour of duty as a United States Marine. As any Corps member will point out, “Once a Marine, forever a Marine”, and Joe took his own Marine Corp service equally seriously.
Joe’s success with the Altered ’32 was promising, but he knew the coupe was limited by its weight and girth. Joe wanted to go faster and the only scratch to soothe that itch was a dragster. His Hemi engine was already making good power, and without the weight of a steel body and full chassis, Joe guessed the Chrysler’s output should yield speeds of 150 mph, maybe more.
Tucci contacted Pat Bilbow, of Lyndwood Welding, in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Lyndwood’s reputation for building sturdy, fast dragsters had already impressed Tucci. He ordered a chassis with Chrysler engine mounts from Bilbow and began getting comfortable in the open-wheel car. Although the six-carb system was competitive in B/Dragster, Joe was not satisfied with 140-150 mph. Tucci had a capable chassis and went in search of more horsepower.
Tucci dropped his 392 hemi into this Lyndwood Eliminator chassis. After getting comfortable with the car he built a new, blown 392 hemi and quickly racked up Top Eliminator wins and track records across the eastern seaboard.
Wisely, Tucci retained his basic 392 Chrysler Hemi, but with a stroke-lengthened crankshaft. Now 454 CID, Tucci stepped up to a 6-71 supercharger and Hilborn fuel injection. Tucci’s big, blown Chrysler started showing up at Mid-Atlantic drag strips, and track records tumbled.
Tucci’s Lyndwood chassis and the speeds he was recording did much to promote the handling and performance of Pat Bilbow’s chassis. The two soon became friends and then later, racing partners.
Joe Tucci’s first Lyndwood chassis was the standard 96” wheelbase Eliminator. The basic Lyndwood chassis design handled very well at 160+ mph. By 1960 Tucci’s car was
cranking out speeds over 170 mph and ET’s in the high eights! In those days gas burning, twin engine cars dominated on both coasts. Tucci’s single-engine AA/Dragster was running as fast as the twins. It was also putting all the eastern top dogs on the trailer. News of Tucci’s performances began reaching all the way west, to Texas and California via Drag News and the prolific drag racing “grapevine”.
Joe claimed many Top Eliminator titles and set numerous track ET and speed records. The new big-inch Chrysler was a thumper, and presented few mechanical issues with its conservative tune-up and high octane gasoline diet.
This period perfect photo shows drag racing in the late 50’s and early 60’s. Weekend hobby racers such as Joe Tucci raced on mostly airfield tracks for trophies and a little cash.
It was at the Petersburg, Virginia airfield drag strip that Joe Tucci’s rapidly rising drag racing career and his luck ran out. Pete and Howard Lickliter, from Staunton, VA, ran a Cadillac powered A/Competition Coupe on a homebuilt dragster chassis. A gutted Austin Bantam body hung over the roll cage and classified the car as an A/Competition Coupe. With Pete driving, they won often in Middle and sometimes Top Eliminator.
Tucci was slowing after a run against Lickliter when the clutch in the A/Comp car blew. Parts of the clutch escaped the bellhousing shield and the engine dropped. The headers fell on top of the steering drag link, jamming the steering. Lickliter plowed into the rear of Tucci’s car.
Joe Tucci was seriously injured, and it took over an hour to remove him from the mangled car. The Petersburg airfield track was remotely located, and it was a long time before an ambulance reached the accident scene. Treatments for spinal injuries were few in 1960, without the drugs and knowledge available today. Joe Tucci was paralyzed from the waist down..
Pat Bilbow and Joe Tucci had become close friends both on and off the track. Bilbow drove to Virginia and brought the mangled race car back to Pennsylvania. While Joe remained hospitalized, Pat removed the engine and all salvageable parts. Pat agreed to build a new car using Tucci’s drivetrain. The car would be known as the Tucci & Bilbow Special. Optimistically, Joe Tucci was listed as driver. When finished, Bilbow drove and Joe tuned from his wheelchair.
This lengthened Lyndwood chassis took Joe Tucci and Pat Bilbow to speeds over 170 mph and ET’s in the eights, on gasoline.
The Tucci & Bilbow team raced across the eastern seaboard with success, posting speeds and ET’s equal to the best in the country. By 1962, the busy chassis shop and a growing non-racing fabrication and welding business prevented further campaigning of the car. Those demands forced the retirement of the Tucci & Bilbow team. For Bilbow’s Lyndwood Chassis firm changes in the perceived design and function of modern dragster and roadster chassis reduced the demand for Lyndwood race cars and components. After more lucrative non-racing client demands overshadowed the chassis orders Pat Bilbow closed the race car operations in 1971.
Joe Tucci had grown up in the shadows of the U.S.M.C. base at Quantico, Virginia. His home town, Quantico, VA, was surrounded by the massive USMC base. The Marines dominated everything in the small town, and as soon as he was eligible Joe signed joined The Corps.
After serving his hitch he returned home to Quantico, where he quickly became involved in area drag racing. Well-liked and respected by his peers, Tucci displayed an early affinity for building and tuning engines.
After his accident Tucci refused to abandon hope. Like a Marine, Tucci soldiered on, minimizing his handicap’s impact on his lifestyle. Pat Bilbow drove and Joe Tucci worked from his wheelchair to maintain and tune the big, blown Chrysler.
In spite of his great success and the growing national acclaim his AA/Dragster brought, Joe Tucci’s life and career is today mostly overlooked by drag racing fans and historians. Those who raced against him and knew Joe remember how talented and courageous he was.
Bilbow and Tucci remained friends after their drag racing careers expired. Pat Bilbow passed away in September, 1985. Joe Tucci followed in August of 2000.
Bob Bilbow, Pat Bilbow’s son, and Lyndwood Chassis fan Bill Klein steadfastly refuse to let the legacy of Tucci & Bilbow vanish. Klein has assembled his own vintage Lyndwood Eliminator II chassis, with the longer, stretched Lyndwood design. The car is a clone of the Tucci and Bilbow Special run by the team in the early 60’s. It too is powered by a 6-71 blown, 392 Chrysler, but for nostalgia appearances and cacklefests the car runs on a nitromethane and alcohol mixture. When fired, the engine’s long “weedburner” style headers deliver that distinctively crisp sound and response that earned Tucci & Bilbow the rep as fastest in the east.
Joe Tucci’s AA/Dragster was faithfully depicted on the cover of the 2016 East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame Program in artwork by noted racing artist Joel Naprstek.
The car is faithfully trailered to various nostalgia racing events as well as the annual East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame event, mid-October, in Henderson, NC. This past year Joe Tucci was honored and deservedly inducted into the 2016 ECDT Hall of Fame. Joe’s family, those who knew him “back in the day” and those who had only heard the legend were there as well.
Fittingly, Bill Klein and Bob Bilbow fired up the big, blown hemi as a tribute to the life and fast times of Quantico Joe Tucci.