Part 3: the 1959 National Championship Drag Races
Among the 80,000 who attended the 1959 Nationals were hundreds of representatives from the various automobile manufacturers, including Chevrolet's Ed Cole and Chrysler's Tex Colbert.
"Never before had so much high-level attention been focused on the drags," wrote NHRA President Wally Parks, who still was serving as editor of Hot Rod Magazine. "Top leaders in the auto industry stood shaking their heads, some stating, 'I'd never have believed it if I hadn't seen it!' Not only impressed by types and performance of the vehicles, and the obvious investment in time and money, they were even more amazed at the hardworking, dedicated enthusiasm of the contestants.
"The panoramic scope of variations in powerplants, drivetrains, suspension systems, tires, chassis design, body types, and, above all, advanced modifications for increasing engine efficiency, showed the degree of full-time experimentation today's hot rod sport represents."
Also impressive was, despite the thousands of high-speed runs, there was not a single incident, further cementing NHRA's reputation of "Dedicated to Safety."
Typical of the interaction was sneak peek afforded the hot rodders of a not-yet-in-production engine, which was met with great interest by the hot rodders. "The multitude of questions asked by the rodders readily convinced them that these were no mere neophytes regarding engineering know-how and alertness," Parks observed.
Also of great import to the manufacturers was the three-way shootout for Top Eliminator that emerged between cars powered by Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors engines. Champions crowned in the 34 classes came from 16 states, and records were set in 23 of the 27 classes eligible for records, with cars powered by engines from Chevrolet, Chrysler, DeSoto, Ford, Studebaker, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac among those garnering glory in front of Detroit's automakers. Superchargers became the "in thing" at the 1959 Nationals, as various models appeared on a large number of cars in competition, their teams willing to accept the one-class-up bump required by the rules, i.e., a blown C-legal Dragster would have to compete against unblown dragsters in the B class.
Harold Ramsey of Wilmington, Del., won the DuPont Zerex Stock trophy with his '57 Chevy while Dayton, Ohio's George Montgomery won the Smitty's Muffler Company Little Eliminator trophy with his supercharged-Cadillac-powered A/Gas '33 Willys Coupe, the innocent-appearing baby-blue entry turning back the challenge of Columbus' Edward Coughlin (grandfather of 2000 NHRA Winston Pro Stock champ Jeg Coughlin Jr.) and his supercharged D/Gas '55 Chevy.
The new Coca-Cola Middle Eliminator trophy went Otis Smith's Akron, Ohio-based blown Chrysler-powered T-bucket, which also set the national record at 145.39 after an earlier 148-mph blast. Smith turned back Chicago's Gabby Bleeker and his unblown Olds-powered Bantam in the final.
Houston's Rodney Singer and crew chief Karol Miller used a single blown Lincoln engine to turn a 9.70 and defeat perennial heavy hitter Jack Moss' dual blown Chevy-powered Moss' Automotive entry for AA/Dragster honors while Jack Chrisman took the A/Dragster class with his Joe Malliard-tuned, Chrysler-powered, chain-driven "Sidewinder II" entry over the Don Hampton-driven Chrysler-powered "Miss-Fire III" of Kenny Lindley with a 9.68. The Lindley entry previously was judged the meet's winner of the Motor Trend Best Engineered award.
Finally, after a series of preliminary runs for Top Eliminator, the field was narrowed a trio of entrants for the National Championship: Singer, Chrisman, and Jiggs Shamblin, the latter having emerged from the A Competition Coupe ranks with his Hollish Brothers/"Miscalculation" Bantam-bodied blown Olds entry out of Akron, Ohio.
After dark forced a Monday completion, Singer paired off first against Chrisman and took the victory, 9.77, 149.00 to Chrisman's close 9.86, 149.50 for the right to face Shamblin for the National Championship. After starter Leo Errara threw the flag, the title went to Singer's 480-cubic-inch GMC-supercharged machine in a walk, with a 9.76, 152.00-mph run when Shamblin's mount shattered the clutch. Singer became the Nationals' first supercharged winner, a string unbroken in the interceding 41 years.
The Nelson-Martin-Nelson Dragmaster -- the chassis of which was the model for one of the first commercially available do-it-yourself kits -- proved its own best advertisement after it winning the Motor Life Low Elapsed Time Trophy for a run of at 9.12 seconds and the Safety Engineer's Trophy for the meet's "Safest Constructed Car." Art Arfons set top speed of the meet with the Allison-powered "Green Monster II", a whopping 172.08 mph on gasoline and an official record of 170.45. Arfons also gathered attention for what he did past the finish line, using a parachute to aid deceleration.
The NHRA also staged the National Champion Custom Car Show, which attracted a large turnout of display cars from across the nation. For two nights, some of the nation's best hot rods were on display at the Detroit Artillery Armory. Car Craft Editor Dick Day and soon-to-be-named National DRAGSTER Editor Dick Wells helped coordinate the successful affair.