Ron Colson: A Life Spent In The Driver’s Seat

November 12, 2015
  • Colson’s first dragster duty came in this blown Chevy, Top Gas car.
  • Colson drove Roland Leong’s Hawaiian Funny Car for nearly five years. He also drove the Chi-Town Hustler!
  • Ron Colson’s first “fast” ride was this 12 second, B/Gas, ’41 Studebaker.

There may be only five or six drivers who have driven more different types of drag race cars – and been as successful at the task as Illinois’ Ron Colson. Colson grew up in tiny Oregon, Illinois, with a population of just over 4,000 souls. As a young teenager he sneaked his first ride down a quarter mile in 1958, borrowing his sister’s dog-slow, ’57 MG roadster. The fact that this baptism came at Cordova, Illinois is significant. So is the fact that Colson managed to win his D/Sports class, taking home a winner’s jacket as the spoils of his first at-bat! That immediate, early success left Colson totally, hopelessly hooked.

That first-time victory at Cordova would lead Ron Colson to eventually make thousands of runs on the gloried old Cordova quarter mile, his “home track”. It was there too, in 1957, that Colson witnessed his first “big time” drag race event, the historic, annual World Series of Drag Racing.

That quiet beginning led Colson to a variety of different hot rod rides. Beginning in 1959, Colson out with a ’56 Chevy with a 265 V-8. The Chevy was powered by the same Chevy Power-Pak engine option as offered in the ’56 Corvette. Next came a Chevy D/Gasser until ’61, when he built a 1939 Studebaker coupe with an injected small-block Chevy. Running in B/Gas, the car ran respectable low 12 second ET’s at 115 mph. He also set a Drag News 1320 record and obtained sponsorship and engine guidance from Sterling Speed Shop, of Rockford, IL, one of the Midwest’s best-known speed shops. That early affiliation with Sterling would also provide many benefits throughout Colson’s racing career.

In ’62 Colson and Gary Wood partnered on building a new ’41 Studebaker coupe, again for running B/Gas, but with updated suspension and modern race tires. The new ’41 ‘Stude dropped their best times to mid-11’s at 125 mph, respectable numbers for the early 60’s.

In ’64 Colson got his first ride in a really serious hot rod, a Don Garlits chassied, front engine dragster. The Colson-Woods-Peterson car was powered by a blown small-block Chevy running on pump gasoline. Dubbed “The Stiletto” for its pointed nosepiece, the car was built ultra-light. Running in Top Gas, the team clocked low eight’s at 190 mph and won the Drag News Invitational at another history-filled Midwest track, U.S. 30 Dragway, in Gary, IN. In 1966 they took the car to Australia, as part of the U.S. Drag Racing Team’s first tour down-under. Next year they modified the chassis to fit in a blown big-block Chevy and secured sponsorship from performance-minded Nickey Chevrolet. Still running Top Gas, Colson clocked high seven’s at 195 mph, very solid numbers for Top Gas Eliminator during that time.

Colson’s next step was to partner with Ken Peterson on a Top Fuel car. Running mainly in the Midwest, Colson ran high six second ET’s at 220 mph. This car and team provided Colson with considerable driving, tuning and maintenance experience on the 392 Chrysler hemi. The team scored the 1969 UDRA Top Fuel title in the tough Midwest UDRA Top Fuel Circuit. They also acquired a well-earned reputation for strong, consistent runs and a first-class, professional appearance that pleased track promoters and made them a favorite with fans.

During the 70’s Colson’s driving reputation landed him rides in several different cars. These included Dick Huffer’s Top Fuel dragster and the resurrected Peterson & Colson car, now painted in the colors of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand with sponsorship for the 1970 NHRA Nationals. In ’74 Ron landed a ride in Ma and Pa Hoover’s Hoover Wheel Alignment Special out of Minneapolis. Ma and Pa’s regular driver was son, Tom Hoover, but when Tom decided to build and race a Funny Car, Colson was tapped to take over the family AA/Fuel Dragster. The Hoover ride was one of Colson’s best, and working for the Hoover family was a pleasure for Colson.

In 1971, following a serious accident, Don Garlits turned the Top Fuel world upside down with his rear engine game changer. Within one single season the front-motor Top Fuel chassis was DOA. To remain competitive, tthe Hoovers switched to a Woody Gilmore back-motor car. Colson quickly adapted to the new driving skills needed with no problem. The Hoovers had also switched to the 426 hemi for power, leaving the 392 Chrysler Hemi behind. With newly added power from the 426 and the highly skilled tuning of Pa Hoover the team enjoyed solid outings for the season.

In mid-season, 1972 Ron Colson was offered his first true big-name ride, the legendary Chi Town Hustler Dodge Charger nitro Funny Car. The vaunted team of John Farkonas, Austin Coil and Pat Minnick fielded one of the nation’s most famous Funny Car operations, and Colson was eager to step into the car and its busy schedule. Colson quickly adapted to the confines of his first body-down, Funny Car ride, and was immediately clocking solid 6.40’s at 230 mph. Along the way the Chi-Town team also took the 1972 IHRA World Championship FC title. Known primarily for their hectic match racing schedule, the Chi Town traveling team and Colson ably stepped into the role of driver and touring roadie as they ran booked dates round after round, across the country.

By ’76 Colson had moved on, and was driving the Chapman Automotive Chicago Patrol Funny Car. That car had rotating “emergency” lights that flashed when the car came to the starting line. In mid-season ’76 he was hired to “temporarily” drive Roland Leong’s Hawaiian FC. Colson and Leong clicked, and his “just a few weeks” ride lasted for several years until 1980.  During that five year span he drove several different configurations of Leong’s famous island speedsters. The ’80 season was an up-and-down roller coaster, with big engine boomers, scorching fires and a number of bloops. Still the team managed to make it to the 1980 NHRA World Finals where they won Funny Car and finished third in the points chase that year. Colson’s stint as driver of Leong’s Hawaiian ended up as one of Leong’s longest-running. Leong was famously quoted as saying: “Drivers are like spark plugs. When you think you need a new one you just screw out the old driver and screw in a new one!” Still, Colson and Roland got along well and Ron Colson retained the ride for as long as any of Leong’s lengthy list of all-star drivers.

After 1980 the Hawaiian ride was over for Ron. Finding no quality Funny Cars needing a top-flight shoe, Colson hung up his firesuit, helmet and boots. During Colson’s tenure as a pro race driver he earned a high degree of respect from his car owners, and most importantly, among his fellow nitro race drivers.

Today Ron Colson remains involved with contemporary drag racing as the owner of Track Planning Associates. Colson’s firm specializes in the initial planning, construction and improvements for the nation’s drag strips of the future. His company provides a valued turn-key service by consulting and solving problems with site selection, zoning and other municipal issues, facility design, construction management and operational training for the operators of new tracks.

The East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame salutes 2015 inductee and journeyman MG, Studebaker, Top Fuel and Funny Car driver-of-excellence, Ron Colson.