Text and photos from Ron Johnson
For years I was a part of the
"gang" that raced with the Big Wheel Auto Store owned
dragster operated by Arvy Mack. Starting in 1958 with the B/Gas
dragster and progressing through their last car, the Tom Ivo/Rod
Pepmuller car that ran on gas in 1963 and Fuel in 1964. All these
cars were driven by Bruce (The Original Stormin') Norman with
mixed results. The high points were the spring meet at Union
grove, where Bruce waded through the A/Gas class and Top Gas
fields and also set low e.t. and top speed for a clean sweep.
Later in 1960 Arvy and Bruce set the top speed record for A/Gas
Dragsters and in 1961, they won the winter meet at Fremont, a
week after Wild Bill Alexander trailered them at the March Meet.
Here's the Ivo car in 1963.
By 1964 Arvy had switched his
attention to racing boats and had deals with Ford and Ron Jones
and he lost interest in the dragster. Over the winter of 1964-5,
I and Doug Paton talked about approaching Arvy to run the car
rather than just leave it set. It would be a 50/50 deal, Doug
would drive and I would do the rest. That's 50/50, right? Right?
Yeah, that's what I thought.
In 1965 Minnesota Dragways was
a well operated track, with great facilities and a weekly Sunday
show. The Twin Cities was a hot-bed of dragster activity, partly
because the long winters gave the serious hot-rodders 6-7 months
with nothing to do but work on their race cars. Another thing,
John Foster was not afraid to spend some money to get out-of-town
hot-dogs there so the Twin Cities race fans had a chance to see
many of the top cars each year.
Tom Hoover had emerged as a national figure after winning the
1964 AHRA Winternationals and this had energized a number of
local individuals or teams to build cars to compete with him.
Some of the local top fuel cars besides Hoover and The Big Wheel
were, Bill Schifsky, Johnson/Mazzitello, Jim Cassidy with Jim
"The Bear" Schaeffer driving, Steve Anderson, Tom Bohler,
Finn and Manke "Padded Cell" with Doc Halladay driving,
Bob Fetrow,, Boldenau/Burke . Then there were a few unblown nitro
cars lurking, if the field was short. "Nautilus Joe"
Weikleenget, the Wibbles and Stewart "Mortician" and
So, it was not like "Oh you have a Top Fueler in fly-over-land
and you can win the races every week!" All the guys, except
Hoover, were purely hobby racers though and the wouldn't knowingly
blow up any parts to win a round. The most important thing was
to keep it in one piece because none of them were wealthy enough
to spend "whatever it takes".
I don't know of any rivalries at that time, that were so severe
that the people didn't get along, and like herd animals, the
racers were comfortable with each other and so there was a lot
of socializing also. I don't remember a single marital blowup
because of it though, unlike the local circle trackers who were
a regular Peyton Place.
This is the environment that we entered when we took over the
running of the car. Doug and I had both been a part of the whole
racing scene but now we became "players"! He and his
wife, and I and my wife were the crew. We had no outside help
at the races and so it became serious in a hurry!
On Saturday the week before Memorial
day, I was putting the finishing touches on the motor at Viking
Automotive, my engine sponsor. We had a race that Arvy had booked
the previous fall at Winnipeg, on Memorial day. Two kids about
18 stopped and said hello and asked me when I was leaving. I
said, "Leaving, Where To?" They said we were racing
in Winnipeg the next day. I said"No, that's next Sunday".
They said no, it's tomorrow, Victoria Day.
I got a hold of Arvy,(at a card party with Mrs. Mack) told him
what they said, he called Bill Bielicki (sp) and yup it was tomorrow.
The plan had been Arvy would go with us to the first race to
see me through my induction as a top fuel tuner.I planned to
tow with my Caddy Fleetwood, but we couldn't all (Me, my wife,
Doug, his wife and Arvy) all go 800-900 miles in that, towing.
I called Jerry Finn and arranged to borrow his new Pontiac wagon
and about 7:00PM, off we went. No Freeways, this trip, slow going
We drove all night and made it there by about 9:00 AM after nearly
running out of gas about 5:00 AM in the wilds of Northern Minnesota.
There was a brand new 392 in the car, with the Enderle/6:71 setup
and because of the 35-40 cold temps Arvy couldn't even hit a
tuneup. The car blubbered three runs and we collected our $500
without looking at the promoter and went back to Minneapolis.
On Memorial Day we were at Minnesota Dragways for the season
opener and with Arvy's tuneup ran some low 8:00's and high 180's.
That was it, Arvy turned me loose on the world. I could spell
"Tuner", but had no idea what it meant! This picture
is from Minnesota Dragways.
Doug and I ran
the car for a few weeks and started to get a handle on it. Hoover
(Tom) had just gotten his B & M Torqmaster car and he was
going to a track in Iowa, at Cedar Falls to try the car out.
We were all pals and we decided to go with he and George and
Ruth and run there on Sunday. It was us against him for Top Eliminator
and the Woody car cheeped across the line while staging and they
couldn't pull it back. We took the money and the trophy from
The Hoove. Hey, a Win's a Win, RIGHT!
A couple of weeks later at Minnesota Dragways about 100 feet
out, the clutch blew up. Clutch pieces went everywhere and one
disc went straight up and started coming down on the right side
of the track, right where I WAS STANDING! I watched it coming
down like a Frisbee. I had to keep moving as it was curving down
toward me. It finally came down about 20 feet from me and I ran
to the car which was only a short distance, sitting there running.
The kill switch wire was severed as was the fuel shutoff.. I
pulled plug wires until it died. Doug was in shock, but okay.
The car was cut in half on the right side and laying on the ground.
We coaxed the remains onto the trailer and i took the car home.
I had been keeping it on the trailer in the one car garage behind
the house and that's where I put it. On Monday, Arvy and I went
to the garage and he got a first look at it. We determined that
the chassis was long cracked at the bottom of the right side
motor plate upright and the car itself had caused the blowup,
by creating stress on the welded aluminum Donovan clutch can,
and welds failed allowing the car to bow downward on the right
and displace the clutch. On Tuesday, he asked me if I would be
interested in buying what was left. I made one of the snap decisions
which have caused me pain or brought me great happiness and I
said yes. I bought car, trailer and all the worn out spare parts
he had, lots a sets of old rods, pistons etc. etc. etc.
A buddy of mine, Ken Miller,
had a chassis jig that he had built a car on, and he volunteered
the use of the jig and his assistance, along with Bob Boos, who
would do the welding. Together, we stretched the car about 30
inches from 112 to 142. Miller beat out a couple of new body
panels to replace what had been grenaded..
A local guy named Jerry Hemmingson offered to paint the body,
which had been Black, in Gold Metalflake. I agreed and with the
paint job we were back on the track in just a few weeks. I don't
have any pictures of the car after the repaint.
We continued to race at Minnesota Dragways on a weekly basis
and occasionally made a trip north of the border, to Winnipeg.
The best we ever ran was a very high 190, like 199 or so, but
just couldn't break that 200 mph barrier. Low e.t for us was
probably close to 8 seconds flat. We were giving some away because
the car didn't "work" very well and we didn't really
have the budget to go out and break parts to win races, much
less rounds. On the other hand, we ran the entire year without
nicking a piston or anything. All I had to replace was oil, spark
plugs etc. and check the bearings between every race. We took
the motor out and refreshed it maybe three times during the summer,
taking everything apart and making sure we weren't leaving hurt
parts in the motor. We ran a high of 70% nitro and just raced
At the end of the year, Vince Santache, my buddy who owned Viking
Automotive encouraged me to consider switching to a 427 Chev.
I felt ready for a new car anyway, so i decided to sell the Ivo
car and motor separately and dispose of everything i got in the
way of used parts.
Late in 1965, Lyle Haley moved
back from California where he had been working with John Garrison.
Lyle and Vince had worked together prior to Lyle's sojourn to
California and Lyle joined Vince at Viking Automotive upon his
return. I can't remember, to what extent Lyle's experience with
Garrison impacted my decision to go to the Big Block Chev (BBC),
but there was a smattering of experience floating around on running
the Big Block on fuel.
By Midwinter, Lyle went back to California to bring back the
last of his household goods and Lyle stumbled onto a Frank Huszar
RCS chassis that someone had built for a small block and never
went further than putting it in their garage. I think I paid
$1200 for chassis, body, seat, rear end housing, front axle,
spindles, steering and misc drag link, tie rods etc. Lyle strapped
it onto the roof of the u-haul trailer full of household goods
and brought it home. The guy in the picture is Huszar's customer
who I bought it from. Does anyone recognize him?
Lyle got a good deal for me on
the new race car. It even had Tony Nancy upholstery. Over the
Winter and through the Spring we worked to get the car built.
The motor was going to be a 427 Chev, as I mentioned earlier.
There was very little speed equipment available for the 396/427
by then. I was able to talk to Doug Thorley who ran one on fuel
in a early Funny Car and he gave me some tips. I bought a stock
block, heads, pushrods, oil pan and crank from the Chev dealer
across the street from Viking Automotive. Viking was owned by
Vince Santache, with whom I had been a partner in 1964 in the
startup of Viking Automotive. We had just gotten started buying
equipment and hadn't actually gone into business yet. Then Vince
got a chance to buy out the Big Wheel Racing and Marine engine
shop. He elected to do this by himself and decided to keep the
name. Vince was interested in the Big Block Chev motor in general
and was going to provide machine work for my race car free.
The car was really tidy and light
and all we had to do was modify the front motor mounts to fit
the big block into the small block car. We ordered M/T aluminum
rods, ForgedTrue pistons, a Crower cam and lifters and Enderle
bugcatcher with port nozzles, a Schiefer mag and somebody's blower
setup. I could operate a little of the machinery at Viking and
with Lyle, we pretty much put it together. He did the most! One
thing led to another and we weren't ready for season opening.
Doug and I and our wives went down to Union Grove for the UDRA
Memorial Day Meet.
We had started a UDRA (United Drag Racers Assoc.) chapter over
the winter and I was elected Secretary, so I was an officer of
the Minnesota chapter. Tom McEwen was the President and was going
to be at the Union Grove meet, his first trip to our part of
the country. I don't remember anything about the meet, but McEwen
was going to come to Minnesota, visit our group at our monthly
meeting on Tuesday night, before returning to L.A. He didn't
really have arrangements made for travel to Minnesota and we
offered him a ride. He accepted the offer and the five of us
made the return trip in my 64 Cad Fleetwood. McEwen was appalled
at the distance we had to go to attend an out of town race (420
miles) when he had all of the LA`area tracks so close at hand.
We finally got on the track.
Lyle had some information from John Garrison that the Chev head
had "hot spots" so initially we tried to run with a
water circulation system. We`had a second Moon tank plumbed into
a boat 12 volt water pump and circulated water. We did this starting
immediately after the run and as the car was being towed(we used
a dolly under the front axle) back to the pits. Here's a picture
of the car early on with the water tank and hoses visible.
The car was very easy to drive
and we made some early runs, but it was not performing very well.
We didn't know what to expect and were experimenting with mag
lead, blower overdrive and nitro percentage. Lyle was helping
us early on at the track. here's a shot at Minnesota Dragways
one of the first weekends out, that's Lyle in the Cowboy Hat!
The idea we had about a water
circulation system didn't seem to provide any benefit and didn't,
actually, work very well, so before long we took it off. Then
we just filled block and heads with water like everyone else
We couldn't seem to get the car performing as well as it should,
didn't sound very sharp, but it was getting down the track and
not breaking anything so we just kept at it.
In June, there was a UDRA race
organized at Moorhead, Minnesota, a track owned by a racer named
DuWayne Engness. The track was a little on the rustic side, having
two twenty foot wide asphalt lanes separated by about 20 feet
of gravel median. There were eight top fuel cars there, us, Tom
Hoover, Bob Stewart driving the Wibbles and Stewart 392 Woody
car, Dave Babler with the California Woody, Bob Meyer and Doug
Walton with Golden Boy, maybe Gary (Allen) Peterson up, and I
can't remember the balance of the field. Probably Boldenow, Shifsky
First round we faced Hoover and
he must have red lit because we won, but we broke something too
and Doug Paton had to push our car the balance of the race track
in over 100 degree high humidity. I have recently seen a film
of this event taken by the track owners wife and there was Doug
about to pass out.
Next round we faced Dave Babler
and Doug got out on him. Babler crossed over the dirt median
and stayed on the throttled following our car in our lane. Was
Doug ever surprised when he pulled the chute and Babler went
Somewhere along the day, the
Meyer Walton car blew the clutch out at the starting line and
sawed the car in half. Final round was us against Stewart Wibbles
and they were just too much for us, so we were runners-up. Probably
got about $100 for this. Big payday.
On the way back to Minneapolis (230 miles) we all stopped at
Detroit Lakes and pulled into a park on the beach of a nice lake.
All the racers were half crazed because of the heat and bathed
in the lake, it was foamy from the soap suds. Yeah, I know racers
didn't usually use soap. but these guys were all from the Twin
Cities and a better, cleaner class or racer.
We continued to run the car through
the season, mostly at Minnesota Dragways but venturing to Winnipeg
and Iowa on occasion. After the race at Moorhead, George Hoover
took me aside and said that he thought our spongy performance
was related to a lack of boost. We talked for awhile and I remembered
that we had backfired pretty hard the very first time we had
tried to start the car, in a parking lot of a business complex
south of town on a Saturday afternoon.
We checked everything over and lo and behold, we found the pop-off
plate was slightly cracked and leaking boost. I was pleased that
George had been willing to offer his opinion and somewhat disappointed
that we hadn't figured this out by ourselves. But having if off
key from the very beginning we didn't really know if we had a
mechanical problem or a tune-up problem and just didn't have
the experience George had to diagnose the problem.
Once we replaced the pop-off plate the car picked up and ran
very nicely, however we weren't trying to be world beaters so
we were mid pack. But on the other hand we ran all year on the
same parts and had a lot of fun and it didn't cost a lot to race.
I think we ran around 7:50 and mid 190's.
Doug Paton decided he and his wife Beth were going to move to
California in the fall and for our last race together, we went
to Rockford, Illinois', Byron Dragstrip. It was a strange deal.
We qualified well and were to race Cliff Zink first round. Earlier,
someone had oiled the starting line and a pylon was placed over
the oil about 20 feet out from the starting line. This was the
first time I had ever elected to stay at the push out road near
the finish line. Denny Preuss and my then wife Joan pushed Doug
down and when he staged no one went to the line with him. He
mistakenly rolled across the starting line and staged at the
pylon and the flag man said (afterwards) that he thought we had
a handicap start over Zink because we had a Chev engine. The
starter lit the tree for the start and Doug beat Zink and ran
our first 200 mph run (no e.t.). It was haulin' a-- and really
sounded and looked great. I was totally shocked when I found
we hadn't staged right and lost. I was pretty discouraged about
this, feeling that Doug should have been able to stage right,
pylon or no pylon, but whatcha gonna do?
After we got home I called Ronnie
Rapp at Mickey Thompson and said we wanted to get into the M/T
200 mph club. He said fine but we would have to run another 200
to back it up.
Well, this was a problem because Doug had moved and was no longer
available to drive and Minnesota Dragways had closed for the
year. I decided to try to get back to Rockford again. At a UDRA
meeting I talked to Vern Anderson, who had just recently been
driving Hoover's car while Tom was recovering from his second
or third burn incident. Vern agreed to drive the car and so we
went to Rockford. Bruce Ross was going with whatever car he had
at the time and Meyer and Walton were also going, so there were
a few Minnesota boys in convoy.
On the first run, we lofted the blower at the finish line running
200 plus, and Vern got oiled in. He veered off the track to the
left and thinking he had gone off on the right, steered left
to get back on the track. Vern had a sprint car which someone
drove for him, and Vern had decided to try dirt track tear offs
for the first time in the Dragster. Between not being familiar
with the car, missing the chute lever, pulling on the tear offs
and steering the wrong way, bad became worse. The chute finally
deployed but it fell on the ground and filled with sand.
The car bounced over the return road and hit a big pile of rocks
and launched into the air, right into a grove of huge oak trees.
He hit one about 15 feet in the air and it bent the front of
the frame back over the roll bar and spun the car around, wrapping
the chute shrouds around the roll cage. Bad luck turned good,
though because Bruce Ross was right there with his car having
run right before us. He and Vern were really good friends and
Bruce scrambled to the car, unwrapped the chute shrouds and unbuckled
the unconscious Vern and dragged him out of the car.
Vern's head was swelling up and his cheeks and chin were puffed
around the helmet strap and he was choking to death. Bruce was
able to cut the helmet strap and yank the helmet off. By the
time I got there, they were loading Vern into the ambulance and
he was conscious. I rode to the hospital with Vern in the back
of the ambulance. He almost died. Not because of his injuries,
however, but rather because of his mouth. Thinking back to having
driven the Hoover Fishbowl Woody/Hanna shortly before, he said
"Well, at least it wasn't a good car!". I coulda killed
Vern turned out to have a broken back but he refused to stay
in the hospital in Rockford. I called Vern's mother and told
her what had happened, she was pretty cool! She said, "Inky
(Vern's dad) is a St. Mary's Hospital (in Minneapolis) and there's
an empty bed in his room. I'll call the hospital, you just get
We towed with a '66 El Camino (like the one I now have for Shubert/Herbert)
and the rest of us rode in my Cad Fleetwood. Bob Meyer towed
with a station wagon so he agreed to swap people and we folded
the rear seat down and slid Vern into the back of Bob's wagon
and headed for Minneapolis. The Doctor gave me a bunch of pain
pills for Vern and I rode in the back of the wagon with him,
popping him a pain pill whenever he started moaning. It was about
350 miles but it seemed like much farther.
When we got to the hospital, the ER people were ready for him,
but Vern said they weren't going to move him until he couldn't
feel his legs, so they kept shooting morphine in him until when
the lifted his foot he couldn't feel it. They slid him onto a
stretcher and into the hospital. The picture is Denny Preuss
with the remains of the car as it was loaded onto the trailer
for the trip home.
Vern's Mom thanked me for getting
him home, like maybe she thought I would have left him in Rockford!
Well, he did crash my car and it's not like it was the first
time he drove in oil!
Postscript Driver: Vern recovered quite nicely and went on
to have a lengthy driving career in the Walton/Anderson series
of Top Fuel cars and ultimately was probably the worlds fastest
man at least once in the Pollution Packer (a Rocket Dragster
that ran well over 300 mph in the 1/4 mile) and then Jerry Hehn's
American Dream Rocket Dragster.
Postscript Owner: The motor and car were both junk, nothing left.
A total total.
I called Ronnie Rapp at M/T to tell him that we had our backup
run for the M/T 200 mph club. Ronnie told me that Mickey had
decided that 200 was no big deal any more and had closed the
club down. Ronnie sent me two jackets anyway. Most expensive
jackets I know about! I gave my ex-wife's to a benefit auction
at Bakersfield a few years ago. I still have mine.
Postscript Car: I gave or sold what was left of the chassis
(not much) to Doc Halladay and he and Jerry Finn front halved
it and put a 392 in it and ran it again. Above is a picture of
it that I took at the push out road (1000 foot) at Minnesota
Dragways beating Tom Hoover. The front wheels are about a foot
off the ground and were that way the whole run. The picture title
says 1967 but I was still racing in 1967 and not taking pictures,
so to be perfectly accurate I think the picture was taken in
1968. Doc called the car "Jack The Bear".
After the crash at Rockford,
I inventoried what we had and there wasn't much left. The chassis
from roll cage up to the motor plate, the seat and rear end housing
were pretty much okay, steering etc too. I either sold or gave
that to Doc Halladay. The motor had part of the bell housing
area broken off but otherwise the block and heads etc. were okay,
I sold that stuff to Ky Michaelson (Rocketman) for his Don Tuttle
Gas dragster. I had nothing left.
During the Winter I was visiting with Hoover and he suggested
I get a hold of Keith Peabody who had been driving Ky Michaelson's
Tuttle car with a blown small block Chev on Gas. Peabody was
a schoolmate of Tom Hoover's and they were pals. Tom told me
that Peabody had bought the Zane Shubert/Chet Herbert Worlds
Fastest Chev car from 1965, as a roller with no motor.
I got a hold of Peabody and we spent some time at the local VFW
inhaling some Screwdrivers and discussing racing together. We
agreed that I would build a Big Block Chev, put it in Peabody's
car and we would race together. Actually, there would be three
of us in the car. Denny Preuss had agreed to become a partner
with me immediately prior to the Rockford accident, so it was
the three of us. Peabody, Preuss and Johnson.
We took the car to Denny's Duplex in south Minneapolis, about
a mile from my house and this is where we kept the car for the
season. We took the car all apart and painted everything fresh,
had some chroming done as there was none on the car as we got
it. We started with another new block, heads and crank and put
together another 427 Chev, 6/71 blower Enderle Barndoor etc.
This car was very light and unusual in that the driver sat with
his feet under the rear end, which was a Halibrand Championship
Open Tube axle.
This is 1967 and it's my third
and last car. It is the ex Zane Schubert car, which was a small
block Belly Button motor. We put a big block in it and ran it
one fuel during the first part of 1967. We had an incident, so
to speak, at Union Grove and I decided I didn't want to run on
Nitro anymore. We switched to gas for the balance of the year
and then I quit. Anyway, this picture was taken at Minnesota
Dragways, probably by Ron Duncan, and shows the car in it's AA/GD
trim. Driven by Kieth Peabody, the car weighed about 1215 WITH
THE DRIVER IN IT. Car weighed 1080 with a cast iron 427 Chev
and The Pea weighed 135 with his pockets full of quarters.
The motor mounts on the chassis
were for the side mount bosses and they are in the same place
on both Small and Big Block Chev, so the Big engine bolted right
in. We did everything we could to keep the weight down because
we knew we would be at a power disadvantage to all the rest of
the guys who ran 392's.
Dick Shaller, the new owner of
The Big Wheel Auto Store gave me some money to put the name on
this car too, and that helped get everything together. Even though
there was no M/T 200 MPH Club, I got some pretty good deals on
M/T stuff and we used what we could of his stuff. We put stock
rods in this motor though, instead of Aluminum and another crower
Jon Kosmoski was a local kid
who, with Frank Nicholas, had started to do custom body and paint
work. I had Jon paint the body black, we rattle canned the chassis
ourselves. We got the cosmetics done in time for the annual Spring
GSTA car show and the car looked really nice. We didn't have
time to finish the motor though and it was empty inside. Our
only real competition was the Walton and Anderson car for Best
competition car. They gave the trophy to Doug because his car
was complete and would fire up. Ours looked much, much better
and I thought it unfair, but whatcha gonna do? The picture is
with my then wife Joan (Kol, Chris and Connie's MOM) and a friend,
John Orr, who was the UDRA Chapter President.
A little more about the cars
origin is in order. Zane Shubert and Chet Herbert had raced together
for a number of years, with Chevrolet and Olds F-85 powered race
cars. This was their last car together and it was one of the
very first Chev powered Fuel Dragsters to run over 200 mph.
It was probably the best performing Chev on the West Coast on
a week in-week out basis because of the never ending supply of
parts that Chet made available. Zane has told me that they bought
new Chevrolet blocks and other main parts 3 at a time and machined
them all and built motors like money was no object. They started
with a 283" Chev block, installed a 1 inch Moldex stroker
crank, ground out the pan rails for rod clearance and with a
bore job, it was 402 inches.
Most guys running Hemi's actually had smaller motors, as a 392,
even at .030 over is under 400 inches. Few Hemi powered cars
had stroker cranks, so often, this "little" Chev would
be the biggest engine in the field. They ran 10% overdrive on
the blower but quite a moderate Nitro percentage at 15%, maybe
creeping up to, but never over, 25%. The motors were frail and
they expected to build a new one every couple of weeks, so engine
failures were not uncommon, but when they ran THEY RAN!
The car was also very easy to spot because the engine was mounted
way back by the rear end and because of the pinion location at
axle center line the rear of the motor was higher than most cars
and the motor slanted down toward the front of the car at an
extreme angle. Zane was very adept at managing the horsepower
and was often able to beat all the Chryslers, because they frequently
had more power than the track would hold and would spin the tires
to extreme. The Chev being very light and relatively easy to
drive in a wheelstand could put 100% of the weight on the rear
tires. Zane used a single small wheel under the back of the car
to control how high the front end could go up in the air and
he knew how to drive this way and wasn't scared.
Chet told me that they won 12 weeks in a row at Long Beach with
this car. It was a very special car. Here's Zane at Long Beach.