Great Races: 1955 Nationals
by Phil Burgess
In late 1954, with organized drag racing still in its formative years, a group of California racers, supervised by the NHRA Safety Safari team — back from its 12,000-mile odyssey around the country — had staged the inaugural California State Championship Drags at Madera Airport. The event was a huge success and led NHRA to proclaim that each of the 48 states should host its own championship in 1955, culminating in a National Championship drag meet.
In spring 1955, NHRA President Wally Parks and Field Director Bud Coons made a whirlwind tour of the Midwest, scouting locations for the first Nationals before settling on Great Bend, Kan.
An 8,000-foot runway at the Great Bend Municipal Airport would accommodate the nation's fastest dragsters over the four-day event, slated to run Thursday, Sept. 29, through Sunday, Oct. 2. It was sponsored by NHRA and Mobilgas and run in conjunction with the Sunflower Rod & Custom Association.
Competition took place in 30 classes, encompassing NHRA's regular 27 divisions — Gas Coupes/Sedans, Altered Coupe/Sedans, Fuel Coupe/Sedans, Competition Coupe/Sedans, Street Roadsters, Roadsters, Hot Roadsters, Modified Roadsters, Open Gas, Dragsters, and Stock cars — plus one class for four-cylinders and two for gasoline-powered sports cars. Trophies were awarded to all class winners and national record-setters for fastest speed and — the biggest award of all — the Top Eliminator National Championship. The entry fee was a mere $5.
Entries poured in from coast to coast, and major automobile industries dispatched engineering, sales, production, and public relations experts to the event. Press clippings were received from as far away as Hong Kong.
On opening day, Art Chrisman's Chrysler-engined No. 25 dragster set the first top speed at 145.16 mph in 10.98 seconds. Lloyd Scott and his fabled Bustlebomb dual-engined dragster (named the meet's "Best Constructed"), upped the mark to 151.00. Calvin Rice, winner of the first Regional of the year, in Colton, Calif., was in high form in his slick-looking J.E. Riley & Son Special, sponsored by Riley's construction company. From a cockpit that was formed from the inverted tail of a sprint car, Rice turned 143 mph.
Future Division 4 Director Dale Ham won the "C" Street Roadster class while "Jazzy Jim" Nelson had the meet's fastest coupe, the Edelbrock & Iskenderian Special Mercury-powered Fiat coupe, which ran 132.93 mph in an impressive 10.90 seconds to take the "A" Competition Coupe honors. Other instantly recognizable class champions were Howard Johansen ("C" Gas Coupe), Leland Kolb ("A" Roadster), Larry Shinoda ("A" Hot Roadster), Raymond Godman ("A" Modified Roadster), and future '57 Nationals champ Buddy Sampson (Four Cylinder).
By the end of the meet's third day, six dragsters were still in contention for the class championship as well as the National Championship (and the five-foot-tall Mobilgas trophy), which was to pit the winners of the three fastest classes. Unfortunately, the worst rainstorm in 30 years hit Great Bend that evening, washing out Sunday's final runs as well as the planned record runs. It was decided that the event would conclude Nov. 19-20 at the Southwest Regional Championship in Phoenix, a neutral site.
The dragsters still in competition — Scott's Bustlebomb, Rice's flathead Mercury entry, the Bean Bandits, Jack Moss' Ramblin' Ram, John Mulkey in Chuck Adams' Equa-Flow Special, and the Motor Reco Special — would determine a winner, then enter into a three-way battle with Jazzy Nelson's coupe and Fred Voight's Chrysler-powered dragster, winner of the Open Gas class.
The disappointment of having to wait nearly two months to crown a national champion was outweighed by the drama of the final runs on the 4,000-foot asphalt runway in Perryville, just outside of Phoenix.
Rice opened with a first-round 10.90 at 141.28 to send the Bean Bandits home to San Diego, and Moss then became the first driver to ever defeat the Bustlebomb, sending Scott down to defeat with an 11.11, 135.33.
Voight and Nelson lined up next to see who would face the winner from the dragster class for National Champion honors. The two had run nearly identical elapsed times in Great Bend, but this one was all Voight, who finished with a stunning 10.91 at 131.57 mph.
Rice returned to the starting line to face Mulkey and stepped up to a 10.54, 141.95 victory, then defeated giant-killer Moss with an even quicker 10.44 to advance to the National Championship final against Voight.
Rice and Voight lined up three times, with three foul starts. Accounts of the action vary, with either first Voight, then Rice, jumping the start, or Voight committing two straight fouls. Either way, the races were waved off as "no-go" and the contestants returned to the starting line to try again.
On the third try, both drivers jumped the flag and Rice's transmission blew. The race had already been waved off by starter Paul Wallace as another "no-go," meaning Voight could not claim the trophy by default.
The crack Riley crew, led by Chuck Webster and Mel Dodd, was given 30 minutes to repair, and they leaped into action, bolting in a new transmission — which didn't fit. A reworked Ford tranny was bolted into place with nary a moment to spare. The team didn't even have time to adjust the clutch linkage. Rice had to scoot down deep into the seat and work the clutch with the tip of his toe to make the shift in the final, which he took in 10.30 seconds at 141.95 mph, overcoming Voight's early lead. The result made the 25-year-old resident of Santa Ana, Calif., NHRA's first National Champion.