Despite a racing legacy that can be traced back directly to Louis Chevrolet, General Motors decided in late 1962 that they would honor the American Manufacturer’s Ban on motorsports. The gentlemen’s agreement, which was originally set forth in 1957, mandated that Detroit auto manufacturers would not support racing or motorsports of any kind, whether it was through financial involvement, the development of racing parts or even publicity.
From those dark days rose Chevrolet’s greatest generation, which is comprised of the now legendary names, hardware and cars that kept Chevys at the forefront of racing. While the oval tracks and road circuits certainly provided strong venues, the drag strips became the grassroots backbone for a renaissance of Chevrolet motorsports. It was there that a core group of Bowtie enthusiasts dug in and kept racing while winning the minds and hearts of America’s youth.
Today, almost all of these cars and their owners are gone, while the remainder is retired, old and gray. Here’s a look back at these wonderful people and their machines, which left a mark on drag racing that can still be seen today.
NHRA’s 1962 NHRA Winternationals, held in Pomona, CA, has gone down as one of the most significant events in drag racing history. One of the reasons is the short-lived SS/S class, which was only for the most powerful cars from the current model year. At this event, “Dyno” Don Nicholson (foreground) won the Mr. Stock Eliminator title over the Bill Jenkins-tuned Old Reliable II driven by Dave Strickler. Nicholson’s holeshot and 12.84 at 109.22 overcame Strickler’s much quicker 12.55.
Hayden Proffitt is another name that became legendary because of the NHRA 1962 Winternationals. This 409-powered Chevy #612 won class at the Winternationals and snared the overall Mr. Stock Eliminator title at the U.S. Nationals over the legendary Ramchargers factory team. Proffitt would eventually break the 11-second barrier with this car in October 1962, which led to it being later named as one of the Top Ten Stockers of all time.
Popularly known as “Mr. Chevrolet,” Dick Harrell was a winning driver, car builder and showman who attracted well-known sponsors such as Nickey Chevrolet and Yenko. This Chevy II was built by Bill Thomas Race Cars and powered by a Mark IV 427 and a manual trans. The car reportedly ran a best of 8.980 at Cordova with a speed of 155.17 mph. This former AHRA Driver of the Year and World Champ was killed while match racing in Canada at age 39 in 1971. (Photo 2013© Valerie Harrell, Dickharrell.com. Used with permission.)
First gen Corvettes were part of the SoCal drag racing scene as seen with Gayland Hill’s 1962 model. While details about the car are few, newspapers of the era report the car ran an injected 377-ci stroker motor on nitro and ran a 9.420 at 141.00 mph at Lions in September 1966. Hill reportedly sold the car, dropped out of the sport and started building engines for drag boats.
Bruce Larsen had the very first all fiberglass machine as seen with this 1966 Chevelle. With the rear axle moved forward a full 12 inches, this trend-setting car featured the best engineering of its days with a 2 x 3 tube chassis, a relocated rearend pushed 12 inches forward, a set-back engine, an all-aluminum interior and a one-piece tilt front end. Larsen’s Chevelle was a strong runner with a 454 stroker and four-speed. He won the 1989 NHRA Funny Car championship in an Oldsmobile-bodied car. (Photo Courtesy of the Don Garlits Drag Racing Hall of Fame)
While some early Funny Car racers put ‘glass bodies over the top a dragster or altered chassis, others based theirs on production cars. The Pisano brothers (Joe, Frank, Carmen, Sam and Tony) campaigned one of the very first Camaros in 1967 with Frank as the driver. Built from a production six-cylinder car, the one-piece ‘glass nose was extended 22 inches, while the rear axle was moved forward 9 inches. At 2,440 pounds, this mostly steel car ran an 8.23 at 174.94 with a blown 427. The team would later run Funny Cars until the late ’80s.
At just 20 years old, Russell James “Jungle Jim” Liberman was already a respected car builder and driver. He would later move east and pair up with the voluptuous “Jungle Pam” Hardy to become the most popular match racer of his era. With a Logghe chassis, this car ran as quick as a 7.83 with a 427 and an Art Carr Powerglide. Jim would win one NHRA event in his career before he was killed in a head-on car crash with a bus in 1977.
Check back next week when we look at more of the Chevys that made drag racing history.
Text and photos by Rod Short