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 Wil 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 others.

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 450 miles.

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. Whooosh!

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 for fun.

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 did.

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 etc.



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 past him.

 

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 him myself.

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 him there".

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".

 


 

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.


 

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.

 


 

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 cam.

 


 

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.

 

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