Part 4: The 1956 National Championship Drag Races
The NHRA had every intention of returning to Great Bend, Kan., for the 1956 Nationals, and the Great Bend city council had even promised to build a new asphalt strip on the huge concrete runway at the Municipal Airport. Ultimately, Kansas City, Mo., was chosen as the venue for the second National Championship Drags. The Nationals already had outgrown the Great Bend facility, and was moved to the newly-built dragstrip run by the 1,300-member Kansas City Timing Association. The event, dubbed "The Olympics of Drag Racing" (no doubt in reference to the Olympic Games being staged that year in Melbourne, Australia), also was moved from its late September date to its now traditional Labor Day weekend, running Aug. 31 through Labor Day Sept. 3.
Three hundred and fifty two entrants, representing most of the country's 48 states as well as Hawaii and British Columbia, took part in the event, gunning for honors in one of NHRA's 29 classes. Accommodations and coordination were top-flight, from tech inspection to credentials; NHRA and its assignees having learned lessons from the Great Bend event. The pits had been doubled in size; the track resurfaced, widened, and lengthened; the return road paved; and the spectator area enlarged, all in the four days preceding the event. Ollie Riley's wonderful Chrondek timing equipment was wired into place by the man himself to assure complete accuracy.
Leading automobile manufacturers had donated new engines, to be awarded to the fastest cars in each class (other than in Stock), and Mobil again provided support to purchase the trophies, including the oversized National Championship bauble.
Reigning National Champ Calvin Rice made the official ribbon-cutting run in a stunning 9.99 seconds, a time that was not bettered during the course of the meet. Rice, running with a blown Chrysler instead of his '55-winning flathead, later grabbed the official Low E.T. award with a 10.09. On just the 35th run of the opening day, Art Arfons' amazing Allison-powered "Green Monster #6" ran 150.00 to become the first member of Hot Rod magazine's new 150-mph Club. On the second ay, Californian Bob Alsenz, also in a blown Chrysler-powered entry owned by Kenny Lindley (winner of the meet's Best Engineered Car award), upped the speed mark to 151.00 to also join the exclusive club, and was joined later in the day by Rice's bombing 151.51-mph blast.
Rice upped his speed to 151.77 on day three and later set the class record at 152.28, but Melvin Heath, winner of both the Southwest and Missouri Valley regionals, was making his presence known with eight 10-second blasts at a best of 10.22. Alsenz's "Miss Fire II" had run a best of 10.39 and Rice 10.33. Ed Cortopassi's beautiful "Glass Slipper" was right there with a 10.57 best.
With the threat of afternoon thunderstorms looming, and the memory of the '55 Nationals long delay in mind, runs were made at a frantic clip. Only five cars competed in the Dragster class' first round, but the quality of action belied the numbers. Cortopassi's flathead-powered "Slipper" got out on Alsenz and seemed destined to win their match until Alsenz came bombing by at a stunning 159.01 mph. Heath's farm-built dragster then defeated defending champion Rice . Bob Rodgers and his Olds-engined wingtank dragster drew the bye.
Heath then defeated Rodgers, turning a quick 10.26 while Alsenz soloed to the final with a 10.42, where Heath won in a photo finish for the right to advance to the Top Eliminator shootout between the four quickest class champions.
Don Little, in the Reath & Mailliard "B" Competition coupe-winning entry, ousted "A" Hot Rod Roadster class winner Don Morgan with an 11.78 while Heath dispatched "B" Modified Roadster champ Jim Noble with a 10.48.
Heath, a known holeshot artist, then defeated Little wire to wire with a 10.49 to become NHRA's second National Champion.
The event received enormous publicity nationwide on television, in newspapers, and in magazines.