Story by Jim Hill
The Discovery Channel’s “Street Outlaws” series is enormously popular, and one of Discovery’s highest rated shows. This success is in spite of their “street races” being staged on totally controlled street surfaces with the same safety provisions of a sanctioned drag strip. Of course, strict safety standards are mandatory to satisfy DSC-TV’s insurance requirements and demands of local law enforcement. In great contrast to this, the 60’s and early 70’s Newark and New York City street race scene was significantly bigger, and vastly richer!
Newark, New Jersey and New York City hardly rank as notable venues for motor racing. Yet Newark and New York were once the epicenter of intense drag racing contests, all highly illegal and featuring competition for wildly inflated cash “purses”! There were no “lists”, “call out’s” or “spots”, just huge cash wagers and racing under risky conditions.
Today there are no drag strips found on any map of Newark, or NYC. In those days the closest tracks were the now-defunct New York National Speedway, a considerable drive out Long Island, at Center Moriches. The remaining “legal” track, at Englishtown, New Jersey, is also a drive from The Big Apple and Newark. On the mean streets of Newark and NYC, many remember Levi Holmes as one of the many drag racing legends both cities spawned.
Holmes spent time atop the peaks of two vastly different types of drag racing activities. Levi raced competitively in Modified Eliminator and Pro-Stock, during the early 1970’s. He also ran professionally built, Pro-Stockers on the street. You read correctly. Levi’s second career was as one of the notorious NYC-NJ “pro street racers”.
Levi Holmes ran mostly Camaro’s during his reign as Newark’s “Blacl Knight”, but this Chevy Nova earned its share of A/Modified Production and Pro-Stock wins in the Northeast’s tough NHRA Division 1 racing.
One activity was completely legal, the other obviously in conflict with a book-full of city and state traffic laws. Extreme street racing and its huge gambling sums also managed to fly under the radar of IRS and charges of alleged “unreported income” violations. A pit pass into E-Town or New York National might cost only a few dollars. A street-racing bust could cost thousands in fines and worse, confiscation of the involved cars! These cars were not just chopped-up, street beaters. As street racing “purses” escalated the quality of cars competing rose accordingly. At its pinnacle, many of the participating cars were professionally built Pro-Stockers and could easily cost $100k, an investment few wanted to risk to raids by law enforcement.
Being street-smart, the racers had an effective means for dealing with that potential hazard. To insure safety for their investments, the contests were staged in the early morning hours. To prevent unwanted civilian traffic from straying into an in-progress race, all civilian traffic was blocked off, preventing the interruption of a dash for the cash. Often local off-duty police officers who were “race fans”, acted as unofficial “crowd control monitors”, for a friendly gratuity. This provided not only traffic control, but security lest an outsider decide to hijack the cash being held by neutral parties. Such “officially unofficial” security fees were insignificant compared to the money the cars were running for as well as the heavy side bets placed by the sporting crowds often totaled six-figures!
Here at historic old Atco, NJ Dragway, Levi’s ’68 Camaro leaves first on Shallcross Brothers’ Nova during a match race.
The cars were trailered or brought in on a transporter. Even low-buck racers used tow bars. The cars all had loud, open headers, strip-only, high numerical rear axle gearing and high compression engines not suited for street driving. Pro race mechanics prepared the cars and the upper-crust racers often bought complete Pro-Stock engines from the nation’s premier engine builders!
Levi Holmes became known as “Mr. Newark” to the North ‘Jersey street racing crowd. Levi’s cars were powered by big-block Chevys, of sometimes dubious displacement. Each carried a Tunnel-Ram intake, dual Holley four-barrel carburetors, hood scoop, and strictly-race components. Professionally prepared manual-shift four-speed transmissions were preferred. Later, the street racers went to Lenco or clutchless transmissions. 12” wide rear tires, fresh M&H or Goodyear slicks of the latest, stickiest compounds were favored.
Front-rear weight distribution found more bulk up front, but aluminum components, fiberglass front pieces and using small-block Chevy motor mounts in place of big-block mounts moved the engine back a precious ¾” from stock big-block location.
At the drag strip, Levi usually ran in A/Modified Production, an NHRA class that carried a seven pounds per CID weight break. Racers wishing to choose could run A/MP or Pro-Stock.
A 427 with an .060” overbore was 440 CID, just under 3,100 lbs., to run A/MP. Aluminum heads and other lightweight components made that easy. High nine-second, 140 mph numbers were the drag strip norm, comfortably competitive in A/MP.
Levi Holmes’ homebuilt transporter was built on a restored, repowered, ’58 Chevy stakebed, refitted as a hauler for his ’68 “Black Knight” Camaro. When cash warranted, the car was hauled to that night’s “track” and presented for the serious cash-fueled “grudge racing” sessions that made the NYC area street race scene famous.
A/MP and Pro-Stock rules of 1970 were initially simple and seven pounds per CID, making Pro-Stock hugely popular. In street matches it was “run whatcha brung”, with ballast removed and big-inch “ringer” engines installed in place of NHRA rules-legal hardware. Both forms of drag racing, Pro-Stock and A/MP, were equally competitive. Ironically, Pro-Stock paid far less than an early morning street match, making it easy to understand how extreme street racing became so popular and widespread in the NYC area. In addition, most of these racers were “street people”, and had little use for the structured environment of sanctioned drag racing.
In NY-NJ street racing the anything-goes format allowed for a wide variety of cars and engines. Levi’s “Black Knight” Camaros and Novas were raced under the “New Newark Racing Enterprise” name. He also drove cars owned by Rufus “Brooklyn Heavy” Boyd. Some remaining street rumors claim Levi won over one million dollars during in the Brooklyn-Queens Connector racing scene. That may be boastfully inaccurate, but enormous cash sums often changed hands.
Also known as “Mr. Newark”, Levi Holmes’ reputation as a racer was enhanced by this black, ’69 Camaro running in both A/MP and Pro-Stock.
Levi Holmes ran with and against NY-NJ street racers who would become legendary for brash, outlaw street racing and the extravagant cash spent on some of the cars. “Brooklyn Heavy” had as many as six different street racing and Pro-Stock cars at one time, “Fast Earl” Mitchell, Eugene Coard, The Mutt Brothers, “Super John” McFadden, Ronald Lyles and Tab Talmadge were as well-known as “Dyno Don” Nicholson and Sox & Martin. Lyles even scored the front cover of Super Stock Magazine with his 426 Hemi ‘Cuda, built by Sox & Martin! Lyles and McFadden were reported to have competed in the “Quarter Million Quarter Mile”, a street race purported to have been for $250k, cash.
Tab Talmadge even bought the Holman-Moody built, 427 SOHC Ford powered A/MP ’66 Mustang of Dyno Don Nicholson, just for street racing. A couple former Sox & Martin major event winners ended up winning big money on The Connector.
East Coast magazine author Pat Cunningham, who was better known by his alias as “Seymour Balz”, did an in-depth story on the NYC street race scene in Phil Engledrum’s Hot Cars Magazine. “Seymour” shot numerous photos during a couple of the late night “events”, the story and images opening up the big-bucks racing and gambling.
Levi later obtained and ran the ’69 Camaro Pro-Stock of Bill Blanding. This was Blanding’s “Mimi” Camaro with a Nationals-fresh, 700 hp, Booth-Arons big-block. There was also a “Black Knight” ’69 Chevy Nova. All Levi’s cars had success running in NHRA legal A/MP and not-so-legal, midnight money runs.
Levi’s “Black Knight” ’69 Camaro began life as a Pro Stock racer owned by Bill Blanding, and early 70’s Pro racer. Levi bought Blanding’s “Mimi”, painted it black and kept the car’s engine and powertrain. Included was a fresh Booth-Arons 440 CID big-block Chevy and Borg-Warner Super T-10 four-speed.
Like many Pro-Stock competitors, the cost of racing exceeded Levi’s financial resources, forcing him into retirement. At the end of the 1981 season NHRA killed off Modified Eliminator and with it, A/Modified Production. The legendary New York/New Jersey street racing scene eventually came under the white-hot spotlight of law enforcement after media reports drew unwanted attention to the late-night antics, finally drying up the street racing scene.
Most of the major figures in the 70’s street scene have since passed away, some naturally, a few others not-so-naturally, but Levi Holmes remains. The stories and experiences Levi offers are popular legends, along with the colorful cast of characters who were once household names among the infamous NYC-NJ racers.
The East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame welcomes Levi Holmes, of Newark, New Jersey, as a 2016 member of the ECDT Hall of Fame.