The Keystone of Pennsylvania Drag Racing: Ed Kowalski

June 9, 2016

Story by Jim Hill

Billy Joel’s classic 1982 ballad “Allentown” laments the decline of American industry, and in particular, its impact on Allentown, PA. For the late Ed Kowalski, 2015 East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame inductee, Allentown carried an even more personal importance as it was where he “discovered” drag racing.

Ed’s first exposure to acceleration motorsports came in 1954, at Convair Airport, near Allentown, where unused runway space became a quarter mile drag strip. A youthful Ed Kowalski tooled down the track in his chopped, customized ’51 Ford convertible. The street-custom ’51 was built for drive-in cruising, and not at all for all-out drag strip acceleration. Predictably, his results were dismal, but that day sowed the seeds for a lifetime of involvement with drag racing and later, land speed record racing.

Ed Kowalski’s son E.J. Kowalski continues his dad’s legacy with his own involvement in racing. E.J. is presented with his dad’s 2015 East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame plaque by “Jersey John” Anzelmo, an ECDTHOF Board Member during ceremonies last October, in Henderson, NC.

Ed left Convair Airport hopelessly bitten by the drag racing bug. He sought out and soon found kindred racing spirits locally and together they formed the Fuel Injectors Car Club. The Fuel Injectors club was formed to share its member’s common interest in building and racing hot rods. By pooling their skills and interests they were also able to assist each other in building their cars. In 1955 Ed built a Model- A Ford powered by a then brand-new 265 CID Chevy V-8’s. He ran the Model-A at Vineland, NJ, Manassas, VA, Mason-Dixon Dragway and other tracks in the region. By ’57 he had the coupe running hard enough to claim a Top Eliminator trophy at Old Dominion Dragway, Manassas.

Ed’s drag racing was unexpectedly interrupted with a military draft notice from the U.S. Selective Service. After serving his Army hitch Ed returned home, but he was not alone. Behind him, on a somewhat rickety trailer was a homemade dragster in tow. The car featured a Chrysler hemi with six Stromberg 97 carburetors mounted atop a Weiand “U-Fab” log intake manifold, state of the art stuff for 1958.

By 1959 Ed had sorted out his engine and tuning combination sufficiently to answer the call of the NHRA Nationals. That year, 1959, The Nationals was held at the newly completed Detroit Dragway, just south of The Motor City. The track had been constructed by real estate developer and drag racing promoter Gil Kohn, and was also one of the first purpose-built drag strips. During its lengthy existence, Detroit Dragway attained legendary status among the nation’s early drag strips and Kohn held weekly racing shows there until it was finally closed in the 1990’s. Real estate mogul Kohn realized a substantial windfall when he sold the land to Ford Motor Company, for expansion of a neighboring Ford plant.

Ed’s entry in The Nationals was not with a dragster, but with an Anglia Competition Coupe.  Although his success at his first NHRA Nationals was negligible, the Nationals experience did serve to increase Ed’s desire to upgrade his race car, go faster and start winning at a major event level.

1959 was another milestone in Ed Kowalski’s life and racing career. It was in ’59 that he opened Ed Kowalski Speed Shop, in Reading, PA. The new speed emporium stocked all the popular brand names. Edelbrock, Weiand, Iskenderian Cams, Jahns Pistons, Grant Rings, Mallory ignitions and more were stocked or available with a phone call to the California speed makers. Ed’s knowledge of hot rod products and his willingness to share his knowledge and experience with customers helped him establish his shop as a the source for both speed products and information. To Ed speed meant straight-ahead, or turning left, and both drag racers and circle track racers kept the shop busy.

Ed’s own drag racing efforts led him, in 1961, to campaign the “King Twig” A/Fuel Dragster. In 1962 the now legendary Maple Grove Dragway opened, and Ed was one of the first race cars to make a run down the new strip surface. He would continue to be a regular at “The Grove” for decades.

Ed’s Lyndwood Welding chassied, injected Chrysler dragster was both fast and of car show quality! The car promoted the speed products and knowledge available from Ed Kowalski Speed Shop, in Reading, PA.

Seeking that elusive NHRA win, Ed hung a roadster bony on his dragster chassis and returned to the Nationals in 1963, running in A/Modified Roadster class. In ’63 The Nationals were held at Indianapolis Raceway Park, the sprawling Clermont, Indiana facility that became The Nationals’ permanent home, beginning in1961.

In ’64 Kowalski took a major step up by buying the “Outlaw II” AA/Fuel Dragster from east coast fuel standout Joe Nocentino. Kowalski renamed the car “007”, after the popular secret agent movie figure James Bond . Ed and the “007” headed of course for the comfortable confines of Maple Grove, where he clocked a strong 8.04 at 191 mph, with more left.

After running eight-flat at The Grove Ed was confident he could break into the newly added Top Fuel Eliminator field at The ’64 Nationals. ’64 Indy was the first time that NHRA had offered Top Fuel and nitro classes at the Nationals since the exotic, expensive fuel had been banned by Wally Parks in the 1950’s. The field was expected to be not only an “East versus West” challenge but was expected to draw the finest fuel dragsters from across the nation.

The 1964 Nationals program was unique in that both AA/Fuel Dragster class and Top Fuel Eliminator eliminations were conducted. First, AA/FD class run-off’s were held, and Don Garlits emerged as the class winner after several grueling rounds of racing. During class runs a driver could record an ET low enough to qualify him for the TF final eliminations. That put several cars that had lost in class running back in Monday’s Labor Day 16 car Top Fuel eliminations field. This format – first a AA/FD class trophy battle, and next day, the Top Fuel eliminations, made for round after round of racing. It was tough on the racers but a festival of tire-smoking, nitro belching racing for the overflowing grandstands.

Although he failed to qualify for the quick-16 field, Ed did go a couple rounds in the AA/Fuel Dragster class eliminations.  The AA/FD class was won by Don Garlits, and that allowed him to sit out the Labor Day TF finals. In that last race of the meet Garlits met and defeated Jack Williams in the Crossley-Williams-Swan TF car. Williams’ engine was wounded and limping after surviving four more rounds of eliminations, and Garlits drove away for his first Top Fuel Eliminator NHRA Nationals title. Garlits took the win that Labor Day, but Ed Kowalski was far from finished with Top Fuel racing.

Testing later that season, at Detroit Dragway, Ed ran a stout 7.59-202 mph. Then at Maple Grove, he ran Don Garlits in a match race. Ed later remembered actually running faster than Big Daddy, but being late off the line cost him wins against Garlits. In September, near the end of the season, he set the Maple Grove track record for Elapsed Time with an impressive 7.91.

Ed retired from actively campaigning a drag racing car in ’66 to marry and start a family. After ten years away he returned in 1975. This time he chose to run a front engine dragster with a small-block Chevy for power. His interests lay more in enjoying the mechanical pursuits of building, tuning and running a car, and the already huge and rising expense of running a fuel dragster made no sense for a weekend warrior with a wife and family. His home track, Maple Grove, never forgot of Ed’s long term loyalty to his home track, honoring Ed in 1982. A specially prepared plaque and starting line ceremony made note that Ed was one of the original first day racers.

Ed continued to run his Chevy dragster and began building a race car with an entirely different goal in mind. Kowalski’s new project was a roadster for the unlimited speed trials at Bonneville, Utah. Assisting Ed was his son, E.J. Kowalski and Ed’s longtime friend, Jay Matz.

Ed and E.J. completed the roadster and ran the Bonneville meet in 1988. Ed and E.J. returned every year after to answer the siren song of flat-out, right foot-down speed on The Salt until Ed’s passing.

The wide open expanses of the Bonneville Salt Flats always held a lure for both Ed and E.J. Kowalski. Bonneville’s annual speed meet is said by many to be the last pure event for hot rodders seeking all-out, unrestricted speed.

In spite of their success at Bonneville, Ed and E.J. never abandoned their interest in or fondness for the fun of “old school” drag racing. In 1990 Ed and E.J. built a Lynwood Welding dragster chassis into a nostalgia dragster, running events across the east coast. The old Pat Bilbow tube chassis allowed them to reacquaint themselves with other racers and pals from days past. As those involved in the now popular nostalgia drag racing movement have discovered, it’s now more about the fans and friends than all-out competition.

Taking the nostalgia thing another step, Ed and E.J. acquired Don Garlits’ “Swamp Rat 33”. This creation of the Tampa ace was not a Top Fuel dragster, but Garlits’ 1992 land speed record streamliner. After a complete and detailed restoration they took the car to the Bonneville Salt Flats, making several runs on the long, wide-open course. The experience and fun was viral, and they vowed to return.

E.J. inherited Ed’s car crafting skills and opened “Kowalski Customs”, in Reading and with valued help from Ed. By ’97 E.J.’s business was growing fast enough to require more space and they moved into a new facility, again in Reading.

As a tribute to his dad’s many decades in drag racing, E.J. built a replica of Ed’s original 1955 Model-A Competition Coupe.  With it, father and son staged several match races against each other at nostalgia events in 2006 and 2007.

Maple Grove Dragway, now one of drag racing’s premier venues, again honored Ed Kowalski with a Maple Grove Walk of Fame placement and a brick engraved with his name in 2008.

Forever hooked on Bonneville, Ed and E.J. finally set a speed record with a nitro fueled, flathead Ford powered ’29 Ford roadster. In August of 2010 Ed and E.J. returned from Bonneville and headed to Manassas, Virginia where Ed was presented with a plaque honoring his 1957 Top Eliminator win at that historic old track. Three days after they returned, Ed passed away at home.

Ed Kowalski’s legacy was honored in 2012 with the Pat Bilbow (Founder of Lynwood Welding, one of the earliest dragster and roadster chassis builders) Spirit Award, and in 2013, Ed and E.J. were honored as “Hardcore Enthusiasts” at Bruce Larson’s Dragfest.

The East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame is pleased to honor 2015 inductee Ed Kowalski, a true drag racing pioneer in his home state of Pennsylvania and the east coast.