Nostalgia drag racing has a lot of soul. As the mix of nitro flows from a coated set of zoomies one can’t help but rewind to a time when people raced with their rent and grocery money. It was just a lot simpler back then; single-axle trailers got the cars to the track behind old station wagons and single-cab pickup trucks. A few tools to do the tuning, a couple of jugs of race fuel and just enough green to cover entry fees, fuel and food was about what it took to go racing if nothing decided to break. If you were lucky, somebody would pay to display their business’ name on the side of your race car, and in exchange help with the cost of your tire-smoking addiction. Back then, people raced with their heart, not their wallet, and tracks like Lions and Orange County International Raceway hosted many famous fast faces, who at that time were hoping to be discovered.
The Yeakel Plymouth Special front-engine digger is a piece of quarter-mile history that served as Tom “Mongoose” McEwen’s first “corporate” ride. The car was originally owned and campaigned by Lou Baney and Vince Rossi with Mongoose planted in the seat. Years went by with many successful wins, and eventually the car was sold and ended up in Hawaii. In 2005 Lou’s son Frank Baney and Vince’s sons Paul and Jim Rossi teamed up to find the car and restore it back to its original glory. As luck would have it, in 2005 the car was found, purchased and shipped back home. The same rail job their dads had campaigned in the ‘60s, and the car they watched McEwen earn his stripes in, was home, and suddenly all of those memories from the tire-smoking past came flooding back. The crew trusted Steve Davis with the meticulous restoration of the original Woody Gilmore chassis, and Mike Kuhl was commissioned to build the blown 392 Hemi with horsepower cash supplied by Chuck Goebel.
Also splashed across these pages is the Thunder Chief vintage fueler owned by Terry and Claudia Maestrejuan. Terry, like most of us, has a gearhead past that springs from deep in his youth, starting with a ’39 Ford coupe powered by a flathead. Years later that same zest for lower E.T.s and tire frying was fulfilled with a dragster with a 331-ci Chevy motor all saddled onto a 150-inch wheel-base chassis. Terry and a few buddies ran the car on gas and stepped up to Top Gas before Terry went away to serve in Vietnam, followed by 21 years of loyal service in the reserves. In ’73 he and Claudia married and the two shared in Terry’s passion, spending a few years fuel racing until it got too expensive to keep up.
In 2006 Terry purchased what would become known as the Thunder Chief car. With 40 years of very spotty and virtually unknown history in the sportsman field, Maestrejuan truly had a mystery machine on his hands with its past trapped in the round tubing. With that in mind, Terry had a clean slate on which to create his own version of the ‘60s, pitched-sideways, “front wheels in the air” greatness. The car was torn apart and the tired small-block traded out for a 392 Hemi block and heads. Bruce Dyda was tasked with restoring the chassis to maintain ‘60s heritage, with Roger McMartin providing the engine parts list and specs and Terry screwing together the ear-blistering noisemaker.
The Thunder Chief restoration was completed in 2006 and the car was debuted at the California Hot Rod Reunion. Since the car’s completion Terry has enjoyed showing it and lighting off its Hemi rumbler for cacklefest events all over Southern California. His wife Claudia and son Scott are often in attendance to watch dad crawl in the seat and shake the ground.
Check out these two awesome nostalgia dragsters and flashback to a time when the tire-blazing passion far exceeded the financial horsepower.
Text by Travis Noack
Photos by Travis Noack and Bob Ryder