No. 29: Art Chrisman
Art Chrisman

 

Hot rodding's earliest heroes didn't get a new race car every year nor did they rely on professional chassis builders to create their racing machinery or fabrications specialists to create the bodywork. These heroes never depended on airgun artists to paint their machines or stood back and watched hired wrenches build and tune their engines before hopping into their chariots.

More often than not, these ancestors of acceleration did it all themselves, wiping their dirty hands clean before climbing into the cockpit to try out their handiwork. Few better exemplified this standard than Art Chrisman.

Chrisman's family moved from Arkansas to Compton, Calif., during World War II and owned an automobile-repair shop, Chrisman & Sons Garage, where Chrisman quickly learned about cars and developed an interest in racing. Chrisman and his brother, Lloyd, began racing the family's '36 Ford four-door sedan on the Southern California dry-lake beds. That was followed by a '34 Ford that hit a stout 140-mph clip and a tube-framed, chopped and channeled '30 Ford coupe. Chrisman became one of five charter members of the Bonneville 200-mph Club after driving Chet Herbert's "Beast" streamliner past the double-century mark (and eventually up to 235 mph) in 1952. The next year, the Chrismans' homebuilt coupe reached near 200-mph speeds.

Racing was clearly in the family's blood. Chrisman's uncle, the late Jack Chrisman, won Top Eliminator titles at the first Winternationals and at the 1962 U.S. Nationals. In 1964, Jack was the first driver to wheel a blown and injected nitro-burning Funny Car. Jack's son, Steve, was a competitive alcohol and nitro Funny Car racer in the 1980s.

Art Chrisman, in his famed #25 dragster, was the first drag racer to exceed 140 and 180 mph, and the first winner at the Bakersfield U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships in 1959.

Chrisman was partners with Leroy Neumeyer on the #25 car. When Neumeyer was drafted to fight in the Korean War, Chrisman began to race the machine, which would become one of the most celebrated cars in drag racing history.

"It was probably built in the early 1930s by some backyard mechanic," Chrisman reflected in 1991, "but I have no idea who that was. This was not a factory car, just some machine a guy put together. I had seen it around town, and because it was so unusual, it caught my eye. [Neumeyer] traded his motorcycle for the car. We ran it at the dry lakes in the early '50s, and in 1953, we took it to the drag races, the first time at Santa Ana. We just wanted to see if it would go straight.

"Some months earlier, I had stretched it from its original 90-inch wheelbase to 110 inches, set the driver back further in the car, and threw a coat of black primer on it.

"We ended up taking it apart that day and didn't run it. But the next time out, same track, same year, we had the copper paint job on it, the big #25 on the driver's side of the body, and a Chrysler under the hood. That's when we went 140."

The familiar #25 cemented its place in the history books as the first car to make a pass at the 1955 Nationals in Great Bend, Kan., NHRA's first national event. Chrisman took part in the ribbon-cutting ceremony then made the opening lap of the race. .

In 1958, as #25 was beginning to show its age and a new breed of dragster, the slingshot, was beginning to make its mark, the Chrismans, along with Frank Cannon, built their famed Hustler I dragster, which immediately won the Best Engineered Car award at the 1958 Nationals. The car, powered by a blown 392-cid Chrysler engine stroked out to 454 inches, appeared on the cover of the January 1959 issue of Hot Rod Magazine, and a month later recorded the sport's first 180-mph run with a 181.81 blast on the back straight of Riverside Raceway and used those runs as a catalyst to win the Smokers Meet in Bakersfield.

"We ran a 180 that day and two 179s, so we knew we had a runner," he said. "That run gave us a lot of confidence going into the first Bakersfield race, which was run in March. We knew that all the big guys from California would be there, as well as Don Garlits and some of the Eastern racers. We wanted to show them we were for real with that 180."

Chrisman won that historic first Smokers Meet, running as quick as 8.70 at 179.70 mph, and trailering some of the best fuelers in the sport. He capped the event with a victory over Tony Waters in the Waters & Shugrue roadster in a near pitch-black final.

Chrisman ran that car through the end of the 1962 season, scoring Top Fuel runner-ups at the 1960 and 1961 Bakersfield races, then went to work for Ford Motor Company's Autolite Spark Plug Division, which put an end to his racing career, but not his driving career.

Chrisman, now 71, who along with his son, Mike, founded Chrisman Auto Rod Specialties to build and restore hot rods, restored Hustler I to 1962 vintage in the mid-1980s, and has made full quarter-mile smoking runs for the fans in the last decade. The car was recently part of the "Cacklefest" at the 2001 Winternationals.

"I originally restored it for the 20th Anniversary March Meet at Bakersfield," he reflected. "The track people there thought it would be good if the original winner could come back and make a pass. In a nutshell, that's what we did."

Mike, meanwhile, built his own Hustler III and won numerous Jr. Fuel titles with an engine built and tuned by his dad.

"I can't really compare and contrast drag racing then and now," Chrisman told National DRAGSTER in 1991. "I have no idea what it's like to run one of these 300-inch cars that go 290 mph. I can say, though, that when I was racing it was a lot of fun, and I feel comfortable with the success we've had. Looking back on the earlier days and what we're doing now, I can safely say that I had fun then, and I'm having fun now." -- Phil Burgess