White Pants & Shirts, Car Clubs And Drag Racing’s Innocence Lost

April 8, 2016

Dean Moon’s famous Mooneyes dragster featured all-white clad crewmembers in 1961. Model car maker Revell made a plastic kit of this car, which used a Potvin front-mounted blower and a small-block Chevy in a Dragmaster chassis.

Story by Jim Hill

Next time you’re watching a major drag racing event, in person or on TV, take note of all those super-graphic crew uniforms worn by every race team member and official.  Any time the pro classes are running the staging lanes resemble a kaleidoscope of brightly colored product logos.  It’s all part of the “get professional” wave that now rules the upper strata of drag racing a few decades ago.  The result is scores of over-logo’ed crew members hoping to accidentally get three seconds of on-camera time.  This coincided with the appearance of powerful consumer product sponsors wielding the economic power to dictate every aspect of how and how often their brand appears on camera.

So, how important is a few scant seconds of logo exposure on The Tube? Several firms specialize in measuring just value. They formulate its worth by taking the cost of a paid commercial ad spot and breaking that number down to a per-second rate. Then goggle-eyed staff viewers scan every second of the program broadcast, carefully noting each on-camera flash of a client’s logo. At the end of the program these numbers are compiled and a value attached to those few, fleeting seconds. Collected over a viewing season, these exposure estimates are worth millions of dollars to a major consumer brand sponsoring a team, or the event itself. It’s all about leaving a message with the consumer, whether by direct means, as in a TV commercial, or subliminally, as with repeated exposure to a brand’s logo.

It is obvious to all that pro level drag racing today is all about substantial sums of money. Drag racing at the major event level has evolved into a corporate driven, full frontal assault on our senses. The major event, pro monster fed upon itself until today it’s all too common for the pro fields of Top Fuel, Funny Car and Pro Stock to find itself without a full field of cars ready to make first-round on Sunday. The costs for fielding a pro team across an entire season requires major corporate sponsor funding. Alarmingly, those costs still sharply rising, and even major sponsorships by top-shelf consumer brands may not be enough.

If you’d like relief from this battle to win our hearts, minds and discretionary spending income, think back to a much simpler time. In its salad days, the 1950’s and 60’s, drag racers were mainly motivated by the pure desire to build and race their homemade creations. Most race organizers and officials were driven by an equally altruistic desire to present races in a safe, organized fashion. More often than not, racers and officials were dressed in all-white uniforms of white shirts or t-shirts and white painter’s trousers.

Drivers and race mechanics – which were usually one-in-the-same in the early 60’s, wore whites at the track and in the shop. Here Huston Platt (“Dixie Twister” A/FX and Funny Cars) shown in center, and Dyno Don Nicholson (right) share trophy after win in “Lil General” ’62 Chevy 409. The late Huston Platt was a 2009 East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame inductee. 

This all-white look evolved from the desire to elevate drag racing’s image to a higher plane and a more acceptable public persona. It was all meant to counter drag racing’s then unsavory image of greasy, criminally motivated hot rod punks. Although this now sounds laughable, half a century ago a major crusade was launched to scrub the image of an earlier generation of hot rodders.

The early days of drag racing and its hot rodder participants were often tagged with a severely negative image.  Mr. and Mrs. Mainstream America viewed hot rodders as bad boys with zero redeeming qualities, unsavory characters all.

The fact was that in the late 50’s and early to mid 60’s racers held jobs and spent their evenings in the garage, wrenching their cars. In spite of their bad-boy image, most drag racers were just young men with a desire to learn how cars, engines and racing worked.  Many were members of “The Greatest Generation”, not long out of the military,  eager to utilize the training and mechanical skills they acquired while in uniform.  Aggressively loud, rag-tag hot rods and frequent drag racing on city and suburban streets enhanced this negative image.  To hot rodders, open-pipes engine noise was music. To non-believers it was pure aggravation.

Typical 50’s-60’s airfield drag strip scene with Olds powered dragster and crew dressed in all-whites. Track officials in background are similarly clad. Obviously homebuilt dragster sports Moon discs and fuel tank and motorcycle front wheels.

In the 1950’s there were few organized drag strips, so they took to public streets.  That led to respectable citizens viewing hot rodders as speed-crazed punks. As if Aunt Gertrude’s opinion wasn’t proof enough, a steady stream of sensationally lurid Hollywood “B” movies depicted drag racers as an outright menace.

In early days hot rodders were often attired in Levi’s jeans and black leather motorcycle jackets. Denim jeans and leather jackets were anti-socially unfashionable, suitable only for roughneck factory workers and juvenile delinquents.  Many schools forbid students from wearing them to classes or school functions, and never, ever worn to church!

Many municipalities reacted by making hot rodders unwelcome. Those ensnared faced stiff fines, police arrest, harassment and even confiscation of their cars, all aimed at stifling the hot rod craze. Local elected officials often pressured the local press to back their purge of these undesirables.

Mooneyes guys always wore white pants and shirts with huge Mooneyes logos, shown here in the pits at newly opened Indy Raceway Park, 1961 Nationals. Moon Equipment Co., was an iconic early speed equipment manufacturer and speed shop retailer.

Into this sea of stereotypes and bad-press sailed Robert E. “Pete” Petersen and Wally Parks, a pair of WW-II veterans and themselves hot rodders. Working together, they published a new magazine that focused on hot rods and the hot rodding pastime. It was called Hot Rod Magazine, first appearing in 1948. In the early years it was sold out of the trunks of their cars, at car club gatherings and drag strips in Southern California. Although their distribution methods were crude, there were no other options. Magazine distributors and news dealers wanted no part of a magazine that embraced and glorified punks with loud mufflers. Not so with hot rodders. Within a year Hot Rod had thousands of paid subscribers, coast to coast. The concept of hot rodding and drag racing was a national movement and Hot Rod became its national voice.

As Hot Rod Magazine’s Editor, Parks was a key player in its quick rise, but his real dream was to create an organization that took drag racers off the streets and organized into legal, respectable groups.  In 1951 Parks crowned his idea the National Hot Rod Association, and adopted “Dedicated to Safety” as its slogan.

Leaping, white-clad flag starter launches a pair of very typical 50’s hot rods, at left a ’53 Mercury and right, a ’47 Plymouth on an airfield drag strip. This scene is now long-gone from current drag racing.

Using his position of Hot Rod’s editor, he promoted NHRA as the national organization that would make drag racing safe, acceptable and available coast to coast. Parks remained as HRM editor for a few more years, then resigned to take on NHRA full-time. He continued writing a monthly column for several more years and he and Bob Petersen remained lifelong friends.

Changing the alarmingly bad image of hot rodders became an early challenge.  To get hot rodders to accept the concept of community responsibility he decided to affiliate his NHRA with a network of car clubs. These clubs would help convince local municipalities to embrace the creation of drag strips, and further grow NHRA.

Car clubs required that members adhere to a strict code of civic responsibility and safe driving. The reined-in, toned-down behavior of the car club members turned the tide for much maligned hot rodders and their unpopular pastime. Club members were even encouraged to stop and assist stranded drivers, handing them a card that proclaimed: “You Have Been Assisted By A Member Of…” with the club’s name and its assisting member duly noted.

Along with membership often went the opportunity to become directly involved in officiating at organized, sanctioned local drag racing events. From those ranks came a committed pool of workers eager to handle the needs of any drag racing event.

The Lords car club ran this homebuilt dragster in the 1950’s. Printed t-shirts and white painter pants showed early desire to look sharp at the drag strip, and go fast.

To further improve the image a wardrobe change was necessary. Top professional racing mechanics, such as those at the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 races already had an answer, as did the then sanctioning body AAA (American Automobile Association) and USAC. These guys, racers, mechanics or race officials, were usually dressed in all-white uniforms or coveralls.

Hot rodders made the next move, eliminating the dark, negative image and trading it for the all-white. Many racers also adopted the white-on-white look they hoped would convey a white-hat, good-guy image.

By the early 60’s hundreds of new clubs were sanctioned and NHRA was swamped with car clubs. To solve the dilemma Parks turned the club portion of NHRA over to Barbara Livingston, Parks’ NHRA secretary, gal-Friday and for a time, it’s only employee. She helped expand the car club movement, and the white-on-white uniform of the day. Barbara Livingston later became Mrs. Wally Parks.

One of earliest touring pro’s was “TV Tommy” Ivo. White-clad Ivo toured with this twin Buick dragster, crewed by young Don Prudhomme. Ivo was a Hollywood child actor and early TV star of “My Little Margie” series. TV Tom just celebrated his 80th birthday!

During the 50’s and 60’s many notable individuals passed through the car clubs.  Many of today’s best known racers were once members of well known car clubs, and proudly wore their club shirts.  One of the most famous of all was the Road Kings, of Burbank, California.  TV actor and drag racer Tommy Ivo was an active member, as was his early push-car driver and tire-wiper, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme. Other Road Kings members were Bob Muravez, Tony Nancy, Harry Hibler, Don Prieto and Kenny Safford.  Back east, Don Garlits was an early Tampa car club member, along with others such as “Ohio George” Montgomery and Connie “Bounty Hunter” Kalitta. In the Midwest, Michigan Hot Rod Association, MHRA, became huge in the Detroit area, creating and operating the annual Detroit Autorama hot rod car show. Autorama is world famous and remains one of the largest and most prestigious. MHRA also operated the Motor City Dragway, north of Detroit, and counted many auto industry figures among its members.

Track officials made their presence known with easily-spotted, white uniforms. Here the starter at fabled Lions Drag Strip, Long Beach, CA, prepares to flag-start John Wenderski’s “Black Beauty” fuel dragster. Striped shirt made starter highly visible.

Photos of those late 50’s and early 60’s races almost always contain white-clad officials or crewmen. All-white’s became the acceptable, expected form of dress for racers or officials. That lasted until the late 60’s, when big sponsorship money surfaced in drag racing, and the nation’s dress culture among young people changed. By the 70’s the counter-culture had influenced not only politics, but fashion for all Americans, especially those under the age of 30.

In all forms of auto racing the trend towards modern professionalism and crew sponsor uniforms changed the all-white dress code. Big money sponsorships covered drivers and crewmen with sponsor logos and crew uniforms. All-white race uniforms for racing or shop work hung on with a few traditionalists. Legendary mechanic, engine builder and crew chief Henry “Smokey” Yunick was one of those. Smokey wore white work uniforms as his daily attire, his name stitched above the pocket. Most NASCAR teams of the early 70’s continued to wear whites until big-money sponsors forced them into sponsor logo-saturated uniforms.

Sanctioning body officials were the last white uniform hold-outs. Among the last to sport white trousers with his NHRA Official shirt was legendary Chief Starter, the late Eddie H. “Buster” Couch.

Starched, white car club shirts, white trousers and the symbolic innocence that was once emblematic of the hot rodding sport now exists largely in memories, and old black and white photos.  Some say that along with car clubs went the pure, simple love of building race cars and racing in a more satisfying, less complex time.