We’re all here because of someone else—in more ways than one. When it comes to hot rods, we all got here through a primordial goo of genes and upbringing, but also from outside influences and foundations established by those who came before us. It’s a rich complex of individuals that supports and satisfies our go-fast interests—like a family.
In 2012, we lost some family members. HOT ROD features them here to honor their place in hot rodding, and to display how varied and vast that automotive enthusiast family is. We mourn their passing but celebrate their contributions.
“Big Willie” Robinson
The hulking, 6-foot, 6-inch “Big Willie” Robinson served in Vietnam as a Green Beret with the U.S. Army, coming home in 1966, in the wake of the infamous Watts riots of 1965. He founded the International Brotherhood of Street Racers, its primary mission to direct the collective energy of hot rodders and drag racers to positive activities rather than the drugs, violence, and anger that pervaded Los Angeles at that time. Willie worked for decades to create a Los Angeles–area dragstrip that catered to the street-racer/low-buck guy, and saw his dream come to fruition in 1976 in the form of Brotherhood Raceway on Terminal Island in Long Beach, California. The track was short on amenities and flash, but it was a true melting pot where many people drag raced with minimal hassle, keeping them off of the streets. Several HRM project cars were run there over the years. Willie saw it as a place for multiple cultures and age groups to come together under the universal appeal of “wheels,” as he called it. It can be argued that the import drag racing scene was born there.
Robinson constantly fought to keep the track open, but the city ultimately stopped the Brotherhood Raceway in 1984. It reopened briefly around 1994. “Big Willie” never fully recovered from the passing of his wife, Tomiko, in 2007 and died in May 2012 at 70 years old. Watch the opening of Two Lane Blacktop to remember him right. You can see the Brotherhood at BSR-International.ning.com.
Legendary drag racing announcer and former NHRA executive Bernie Partridge died at the age of 79 this past April. With Partridge serving as lead announcer for NHRA national events for three decades, his voice was familiar to many fans and racers across the country. Famously, it was Partridge who gave Don Garlits the nickname “Big Daddy” during the ’62 NHRA U.S. Nationals. He was known for his sense of humor and quick wit on the microphone. Named NHRA chief announcer in 1958, he led the “holy trinity” of announcing crews when joined by Dave McClelland and Steve Evans. There will never be a three-man team to surpass that. Like the famous “murderers’ row” of the ’27 Yankees, it was an assemblage of talent and panache that could only come together once in a lifetime.
On the business side of the NHRA, Partridge was the first NHRA Division 7 director in the early ’60s, and in the late ’70s took on the job of the NHRA’s national field administrator, later being promoted to the position of VP of field administration, working with facilities all over the country to help the sport and its racers continue to grow.
It must have been crazy to ride the roller coaster of professional drag racing’s growth in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s, but Bernie Partridge had the best seats in the house and the best job in the known universe through those eras. We’re sure he’s calling a Pro Stock matchup between Grumpy Jenkins and Ronnie Sox right about now.
“Broadway” Bob Metzler
When “Broadway” Bob Metzler passed away at the age of 83, the world of drag racing lost one of the greatest track owners and promoters it had ever known and ever will know. Metzler opened Great Lakes Dragway in Union Grove, Wisconsin, in 1955 and operated it until 1995 when he sold his interest, but not his love for the facility. He kept an unusual gift store and museum on the site, with a collection of airbrushed shirts and freakish sunglasses. During the 40-plus years he ran the track, Metzler dreamed up more wild promotions than nearly anyone of his era, keeping the strip in the same limelight as the big California tracks of the day. His wild wardrobe and propensity for sitting on the nose cones of jet cars while swilling a beer—as they did burner pops—cemented his legend. There will never be another “Broadway” Bob.
Everett “Cotton” Owens—one of the pioneering greats in NASCAR, a recent inductee to the NASCAR hall of fame, a short-time match-race drag racer, and one of the 50 greatest drivers in NASCAR history—died in June at the age of 88. Owens was the first man to win a NASCAR race in a Pontiac, and, teamed with David Pearson, he won the ’66 NASCAR championship. He flirted with the championship several other times, both before and after his historic ’66 season with Pearson. Despite his early success in Pontiacs, Owens will forever be associated with the Chrysler brand. He recorded nearly 40 wins as a team owner for Dodge and prepared the Daytona that became the first Stock Car to eclipse 200 mph, driven by Buddy Baker at Talladega. Owens was long quoted as saying that moment was as important an accomplishment to him as was winning the title.
Earl Wade was one of the great wrench men of ’60s and ’70s drag racing, serving as the right-hand man to “Dyno” Don Nicholson. They were a fearsome duo, with Wade’s horsepower being managed by the talented driver Nicholson in a variety of cars. In later years, Wade was a successful engine builder and one of the recognized masters at wringing horsepower from Ford FE engines, specifically those with the legendary Cammer heads. Wade was also an excellent driver in his own right, winning the ’62 Winternationals in a Corvette and piloting such legendary cars as Z11 Chevys and others. He, like Nicholson, was an early adopter of dyno tuning and is considered by many to be an intrinsic mechanical genius. The guy just knew how to make stuff fast.
Elon Jack Potter, better known to hot rodders the world over as “EJ” or “The Michigan Madman,” died on April 30 in Ithaca, Michigan. EJ was 71 years old. After working as a young man to perfect his totally insane, V8-powered, kickstand-launched motorcycle, Potter was rocketed to national stardom on the pages of this very magazine after appearing at the ’65 AHRA Winter Championships at Beeline Dragway in Arizona. Eric Rickman documented and published the photos of Potter in action, and a legend was born. EJ set world records, ran in front of hundreds of thousands of people, and smoked the tires on three continents during a decade-plus career on the bike.
Outside of the motorcycle, Potter built and ran a couple of cars powered by Allison aircraft engines, a trike powered by a cruise-missile engine, and a fullsize electric “slot car” that ran 10s. After he was done drag racing, he built a couple of pulling tractors that dominated the national scene in the mid-’70s. From his mastery of the Allison aircraft engine to his pure guts on the series of Widowmaker bikes, Potter is an irreplaceable hot rodding icon.
Harry Schmidt was the original owner of the Blue Max Funny Car that rose to worldwide fame in the ’70s. The Texan was on the vanguard of the Funny Car revolution in the ’60s and gradually moved from injected nitro cars into blown nitro machines. He was teamed with such well-known names as Mike Burkhart and Mart Higgenbotham during the period before really stepping up his program in 1969, when he commissioned Don Hardy to build him a ’69 Mustang flopper and the Ramchargers to build him a top-shelf Hemi. Schmidt then brought in Jake Johnson to drive and Gene Snow to turn the wrenches on a car he named The Blue Max that Richard Tharp famously drove from 1970–1973. Schmidt returned in 1974 with Raymond Beadle, and the two set the world on fire, elevated the car to the level of cultural icon, and won virtually everything in sight. After winning the U.S. Nationals in 1975 (beating Don Prudhomme’s seemingly unstoppable Army Monza), Schmidt sold the operation to Beadle and went back to Texas, where he became highly successful in the jewelry business. He passed away in April at 67.
Longtime racing announcer, television personality, and automotive writer Tom Hnatiw passed away unexpectedly in July at age 53. Most remember Hnatiw as the co-host of the show Dream Car Garage on the SPEED channel for several seasons alongside Peter Klutt. The pair profiled classics ranging from ultra-rare muscle cars to hot rodded versions of the Starsky and Hutch Torino. Hnatiw served as the voice of several racing series, including the SCCA World Challenge. According to those who knew him, Hnatiw, the seemingly good-natured, fun-loving TV guy, was exactly the same off camera and at the track.
Bob Larivee Jr.
Bob Larivee Jr. was the CEO of Championship Auto Shows, which for decades has produced the main show-car circuit throughout the country. His father, Bob Larivee Sr., organized and developed the car-show genre through his company, Promotions Inc., and Bob Jr. took over as CEO in 1993. Changing the name to Championship Auto Shows soon after, he promoted the Detroit Autorama (and its Ridler Award, named after Detroit show promoter Don Ridler) to become the premier car show in the country.
In addition to the Detroit Autorama, the Auburn Hills–based promotions company is also responsible for 18 World of Wheels shows held throughout the country. A great businessman as well as a motorhead, he also was a cheerleader for Detroit, maintaining his allegiance to Cobo Hall in downtown, enduring both the politics and downturn of the facility to keep his event at Cobo.
Buddy Ingersoll was a true innovator and pioneer in drag racing. Among his accomplishments were an IHRA Modified Eliminator World Championship, a now-infamous turbo V6 Buick Pro Stock car banned from the IHRA, and his wild turbocharged 2.3L Ford Pinto that was running 10s back in the late ’70s.
Ingersoll leapt into the history books in 1986. By taking a rebodied Warren Johnson Oldsmobile Pro Stock car and implanting a Buick V6 engine that wore both single and dual turbos at different times in its life, he created a car that would show fans that Pro Stock racing could be about a lot more than 500ci V8s in the NHRA and mountain motors in the IHRA. There is a misconception that this car was banned from NHRA competition after racing strongly there. In fact, the car ran in IHRA for much of the ’86 season, showing flashes of performance here and there. When Ingersoll made the final round at the ’86 IHRA Fall Nationals—nearly offing Bob Glidden if not for a clutch failure—the stuff hit the fan. His ticket was punched for IHRA competition when sponsors and racers freaked out. The NHRA was never, ever going to let the car run in its Pro Stock division, so it went to Comp Eliminator and IHRA’s Modified Eliminator (which was a mirror of Competition Eliminator).
Jerry Grant had a highly successful and diverse racing career during the ’60s and ’70s, both nationally and internationally. A racer in Can Am, Trans-Am, NASCAR, and Indy competition, Grant was the first man to ever turn a racing competition lap with an average speed of more than 200 mph. He accomplished that feat in September of 1972 at the now defunct Ontario Motor Speedway, his steed the Mystery Eagle Indy car out of the Dan Gurney camp. Powered by a turbocharged Offenhauser engine, it hit a peak of 241 mph during the lap. After his driving career, Grant worked for many years heading up Champion Spark Plugs racing wing and was a staple at races around the globe.
Neil Armstrong was the first man to dock two spacecraft together, the first civilian astronaut to fly in space and, most importantly, the first man to manually land a spacecraft on another celestial body, and the first man to walk on the moon. In many ways, Armstrong helped the U.S. win the ultimate drag race—the one to the moon against the Russians. His colossal levels of intestinal fortitude and courage under pressure saved the lunar landing and got us to the finish line first. He also owned a 427ci, 390hp ’67 Corvette. A true American hero until the end, he was a man of quiet dignity who felt that our current abandonment of manned space exploration is a huge mistake and should be reversed. You may think his inclusion in this collection is odd. We don’t.
Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins
Grumpy Jenkins’ contributions to drag racing were innumerable and, with respect to doorslammers, almost unparalleled. From the invention of the slapper bar to his game-changing ’74 Chevy Vega Pro Stocker, Jenkins was always thinking two steps ahead of the competition and years ahead of the technology of his era.
Jenkins’ early career in the sport was spent as a wrench and tuner, setting up more than 30 national record holders in the early ’60s. After working with hero driver Dave Strickler on both Chevy and Chrysler entries through 1965, he went independent in 1966 with a factory 327/350hp Chevy II that ate Hemi entries for lunch and blew off Fords as though they were tied to stumps. It was that entry that started his legendary association with the Chevy brand and with the small-block engine specifically. In 1972, he made as much money as (and maybe more than) Wilt Chamberlain, the highest paid professional athlete of the era. That feat got him into Life magazine. His ’72 and ’74 Chevy Vega Pro Stockers reinvented the class and were the literal forerunners of today’s 6-second machines. In his most recent years, he was heavily involved with building Competition Eliminator engines and tuning some modern NHRA Pro Stock cars. He was voted the eighth-greatest NHRA driver in history by fans and pundits in 2001.
Jenkins passed at 81 years old. Hemi racers at the big strip in the sky surely shuddered when “da Grump” rolled through the gates with his ’66 Chevy again, and for good reason.
Jim Nelson, one of the pioneering chassis men in drag racing and a member of the NHRA Drag Safari, passed away in May. Jim Nelson and Dode Martin formed the legendary Dragmaster Chassis company in 1959 and made an immediate impact with their infamous Two Thing dragster. This was during the NHRA’s nitro ban, and the twin-engine, cutting-edge car featured a pair of blown small-block Chevy engines that got the men immediate accolades and notice. The machine turned 171 mph at the ’60 NHRA Nationals, which was the top speed of the meet. The Dragmaster quickly became the chassis of choice for guys running the popular twin-engine machines of the early ’60s, but the twin-engine revolution would end—and that end came from lightweight dragsters based around Dragmaster chassis. At the NHRA Nationals in 1961, a guy from Atlanta named Pete Robinson showed up with a flyweight, single-engine Dragmaster and whipped everyone. Dode and Martin took notice, and in 1962 they had their own lightweight chassis and single- engine dragster ready for the Winternationals, which they won. Dode and Nelson released several revisions of their chassis over the years. Nelson was a noted hot rod builder right up until his passing. Read more starting on page 80.
Few men in the history of high-performance cars have achieved such status that the mere mention of their last name conjures up images of the most iconic and successful American performance cars of the last 50 years. Carroll Shelby was one of those select few. As both the oldest and longest surviving heart transplant patient in history, it was a gift for us to have Shelby for 89 years, although it does not take away from our sadness at his passing.
He was an internationally known and celebrated sports-car race driver in the ’50s. He was part of the winning team at Le Mans in 1959. He launched the Shelby Cobra in 1962, and it quickly became a sensation on the sports-car tracks of America. He had his small crew build the Shelby Daytona to compete with Ferrari, and it did. He guided the flailing GT40 program to the historic Le Mans success in 1966 and delivered a historic 1-2-3 finish to Henry Ford II. His company created the GT350 and GT500 Mustangs, which are insanely collectable today and rank among the highest performers of the muscle-car era, and he partied harder than 10 rock stars while all that was going on.
His name and business continue to thrive today, still linked to the Ford Motor Company. The last new Shelby seen by Carroll was the current GT500 with the most powerful production passenger-car V8 in the world. And his company still hops them up to 1,000-plus hp. See a complete tribute in the Sept. ’12 HOT ROD.
Dave Bell was an integral part of the hot rod community. Through his Henry HiRise cartoon each month in Street Rodder (since the magazine’s inception) and through his art on shirts, ads, and more, he was somebody you knew like family—even if you never met him. His art was humorous, detailed, accurate, and familiar. Everybody knew Herny HiRise, so you knew Dave Bell. Those of us who actually knew him were impressed with his intense interest in hot rods and customs, art and pinstriping, politics, and his ability to tell a good story or a dirty joke. And he had a million jokes, all laying in wait for the right moment to lighten your day. Everyone seemed to love and enjoy Dave Bell.
You knew a Bell drawing a mile away, and they kept you entertained with their layered scenes of cars and people; they were never simple. In art class you learn about “negative space,” that area around an object or photo that is blank. It’s meant to give the eyes and brain a rest. Dave’s drawings never had negative space—they were crammed with images and copy and ’50s song lyrics and more.
To say Norm Grabowski was unique is like saying Bonneville is flat. He’s the father of the T-bucket, with his own icon appearing on the cover of the Oct. ’55 HOT ROD, the April ’57 Car Craft, and the April 29, ’57 Life. The car was immortalized on the weekly spy series, 77 Sunset Strip.
Norm appeared in numerous Albert Zugsmith and Disney movies—which itself is diverse. Zugsmith was heavy into ’50s exploitation films like the classic sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll High School Confidential, and Sex Kittens Go to College, while Disney films were, well, Disney films. He can be seen in Son of Flubber, The Gnome Mobile, and The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit. He could play a mean banjo, built numerous cars and bikes, and was one helluva wood worker, known for his elaborate rocking horses and crazy bleeding-skull shift knobs utilizing colorized wood combined with ivory or chrome bits, all lacquered down in a sparkling mass of sinister cool.
Retiring from acting in the early ’80s, he spent the rest of his life in Arkansas, showing up at hot rod events throughout the country as a participant or personality up until recently.
While Ron Hammel’s name may not be on the tip of every hot rodder’s tongue, many of the incredible performances seen in several forms of drag racing were directly affected by his work. His 10,000 RPM Speed Equipment company was the first company to market nitrous oxide systems to racers, dating to the ’60s. That company was the sponsor of Dale Armstrong’s first Funny Car as well. Hammel developed an engine dyno capable of holding on to Top Fuel engines and it was used by the likes of Armstrong and a host of others to develop their nitro Hemis into the 10,000hp beasts of today. In his later years, he also developed superlightweight clutches for many forms of race cars. Hammel was 81 years old when cancer took him in July.
You can’t describe John Cooper Fitch’s life in a few words—he accomplished too much in disparate veins, with automobile racing being the common thread. He was introduced to cars early in life, before flying P-51 Mustangs in WWII, for which he received numerous medals including the Purple Heart. After the war he started racing East Coast tracks before joining Briggs Cunningham’s racing team in the ’50s, becoming the first SCCA champion in 1951. In 1953 he was named Sports Car Driver of the Year by Speed Age magazine. He was head of the Chevrolet Corvette Racing Team for two years starting in 1956, setting a land-speed record and two class wins at Le Mans.
By the late ’50s he was still racing but was also General Manager of the new Lime Rock Racetrack in Connecticut. In the ’60s he created the limited-edition Fitch Sprint Corvairs, and toyed with producing a two-seat Corvair of his own design before Federal restrictions ended the venture.
Fitch was known by many as an inventor, conceiving and developing the Fitch Barrier system of plastic tubs filled with sand or water, seen on most highways today, and the Fitch Compression Barrier and Fitch Displaceable Guardrail used on oval and high-speed racetracks. He started or led many companies that dealt with automobile safety throughout his life.
Tommy “TC” Lemons
One of Don Garlits’ Swamp Rat Pack members, TC came to Garlits’ with fellow Okie Connie Swingle in 1968, taking over as crew chief soon after. Except for brief periods, he would remain with Garlits until he died, to the extent that he lived in the “cabin” on the grounds of the Garlits Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida. He was involved in the construction of 19 Swamp Rat Special dragsters with Garlits. He was instrumental in the development of both Garlits’ revolutionary rear-engine dragster (along with Garlits and Swingle) and Garlits’ museum in Seffner, then Ocala, Florida. Many of the older restorations were the work of TC. He’s known for some of the greatest drag racing one-liners including, “I didn’t want to tell my mama I spent 20 years in drag racing, so I told her I was in prison.”
Robert Newton and his wife, Joyce, founded the Hoosier Racing Tire company in 1957 inside an old horse barn. From those humble beginnings, Hoosier has become the largest company in America that’s dedicated to nothing but racing tires, producing rubber that is worn by drag racers, road racers, and stock-car racers alike. Hoosier tires have been in the winners’ circle at America’s biggest venues from the high banks of Daytona to the drag strip at the NHRA U.S. Nationals. Newton’s story is one of triumph and sacrifice. At one point when business was very slow in the ’70s, Newton had to leverage personal assets to keep the operation rolling. That risk paid off and the company continues to be a major player in the racing tire marketplace today.
Chris Economaki will forever be remembered as the most watched, read, and heard American motorsports journalist of the his time. He also happened to be the greatest American motorsports journalist of his time. His career began as a kid, selling copies of National Speed Sport News at local tracks in the ’30s. It would be that publication and his work inside, after he became editor in 1950, that would vault him to the international racing stage and make him the most powerful voice, both written and broadcasted, in American motorsports journalism. His roots in racing were based in small, gritty, circle-track action—and that never left him. His unique voice and talent with the pen made him a household name for decades. The last printed edition of National Speed Sport News was produced in March 2011, and Economacki passed in September at 91 years old.
Right at press time, we discovered that Phil Freudiger had passed away in late October. He was the first to run 200 mph at the SoCal dry lakes.
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