An old preacher once said it’s important to make memories while you can, because someday that could be all you have. If that’s true, then drag racing legend Jim Oddy might be a pretty wealthy man, and he’s still adding to those riches with this unique ’34 Willys Gasser.
As a driver, car owner, engine builder and crew chief, Jim Oddy’s resume is about as impressive as any you could imagine. Two NHRA U.S. Nationals titles, multiple championships in NHRA Division 1, IHRA and NHRA Pro Mod, Super Chevy, USSC, ADRL Pro Extreme, multiple records and hall of fame inductions all attest to the impact this man has had on drag racing. Yet, even in retirement, Oddy is thinking, building and tinkering as seen by this record-setting Gasser that he built in his home garage.
“In 1957 when I was sixteen, I belonged to a car club in Buffalo, New York, called the Torq Torkers,” Oddy said when asked about his beginnings in the sport. “We had a cruise to a drag strip in Canada. I remember sitting on the hood of the car watching all these racers running down the strip with letters on them like ‘A/G’ and ‘B/G.’ I had a lot of questions about that. Not long after that, we went to another drag strip and I entered my six-cylinder thirty-six Chevy coupe into E/Gas. Believe it or not, the worst possible thing happened: I won the class trophy! That was the beginning of the end.”
Oddy’s father had worked a lifetime in the shipyards as a welder and fabricator. These were important skills that were passed down; especially since the ’36 Chevy he found was essentially an old junked mail delivery car. With this his only transportation for many years, both father and son spent a lot of time on the machine. Those efforts served him well as he set the record in C/Gas in 1960, after driving it from Buffalo to Pennsylvania and then back home again!
“In nineteen-sixty-four, we went as spectators to the U.S. Nationals.” Oddy said about his first step up to the big time. “I was working construction and had an Anglia. It looked like a lot of fun, so I went home and worked hard on that car, and took it back to Indy in nineteen-sixty-five, where I won B/Gas over Bob Riffle. That was a pretty cool deal.”
Oddy continued running in the Gasser ranks with an Austin, and then an Opel GT. He progressed in racing through other classes and eventually opened his own business. One of his proudest moments was winning both the Driver and Mechanic of the Year accolades in NHRA Division One, when divisional racing was in its heyday. He won a second U.S. Nationals title in 1972. In later years, he drove less, focusing instead on family and business.
Oddy reemerged in the national spotlight in the late ’80s when IHRA’s Top Sportsman class was all the rage. At the ’89 IHRA Winternationals in Darlington, his flat black Corvette with Fred Hahn piloting, turned the world upside down, running an unheard of 6.69 E.T. When Pro Modified became an official class the next year, IHRA essentially outlawed that car, but Oddy still returned with the most feared car in the entire class which would often draw 30+-plus entries for a 16-car field.
With Hahn driving, the Oddy Automotive team won from 10-12 different championships before the constant travel and fatigue began to take their toll. Oddy campaigned on with other drivers before eventually selling his team, closing shop and relocating to the warmer North Carolina climate.
After a short respite, he began getting calls from teams asking for his assistance. These led to another four years on NHRA and ADRL circuits where more championships followed. Again, the physical and emotional toll became too great.
“When I moved down here, I was so worn out I couldn’t even go to a race track,” Oddy said. “I was just burned out. I played with my street rods and was happy and content. I thought I could do without a race car, but then I found it was hard not to have one sitting in the garage.”
Oddy had time to reflect upon the good old days with his Gasser and the camaraderie that was more common in drag racing back then. After collecting Willys parts for many years, he got the bug to build a Gasser in his home garage. This decision lead to yet another chapter in his drag racing life.
“I built a Willys coupe a few years back,” Oddy said. “As I was unloading it, a guy came up and fell in love with it. He bought it on the spot, so I never even got to race it. I thought, well, I didn’t really don’t need one. Within a year or so, the parts car I had for the coupe was still sitting behind my garage and I started looking at it. All I had was a bunch of old rotted out parts that weren’t even good enough for the coupe I built. On top of that, it was just an ugly four door, and all I had was the back half of it, but I did have a frame. So, I pulled it out, started cutting, tinkering and putting it together. I converted it into a two door, mainly off an illustration from some old Willys’ books. It was a concept drawing of a two-door sedan, but they never built it. So it’s a nineteen-thirty-four concept car!”
Concept car or not, most of Oddy’s friends called it a junkyard dog, which became the car’s name. There were holes you could see through in the front fender and it wasn’t especially pretty, but he knew it would run like a scalded dog. Now that he had the car done, it was time to find a driver.
“Junior Ward [the new owner of Roxboro Dragway in North Carolina] bought the ZO6 Corvette I won the two-thousand IHRA Pro Mod championship with and asked if I could help him out a little bit,” Oddy said. “We got it running pretty good, and then I asked him to be my test pilot for the Willys. It wasn’t a very good-handling car at the beginning, but he could run it right to the edge so I could see what it needed for adjustments. So, we went to the first race, he won and then the second race, which he won, and he’s been in it ever since. I hope I get to sit in the driver’s seat sometime, but the problem I have is that Junior is such a tremendous driver, I know there’s no way I can drive the car the way he does.”
Oddy’s Willys was built in much the same fashion that Gassers were in the ’60s. Running with a stock frame and front end, the car uses a Ford 9-inch rear with anything from a 4.11 to a 4.56 gear depending on the track conditions. Safety considerations include a chassis certified to a 7.50, an aluminum seat and small disc brakes on the front. Drum brakes are still used on the rear. Original Halibrands run on the front with American two-piece rear wheels carrying M&H 12-inch rear slicks.
The engine uses a standard cast-iron Chevy 350 punched out to 362 ci with a Callies crank, and Carillo rods and pistons. A Hillborn four-port fuel system running alcohol, Enderle 80A fuel pump, Vertex mag and a GMC 6-71 blower complete the basic engine combination. At 2,400 pounds, Ward recorded a record 4.824 at 146.45 in the eighth-mile at Virginia Motorsports Park.
“These are cars that can be built without a lot of money and skill,” Oddy said. “That’s what our Nostalgia AA Gasser club is all about. Two or three guys can pull together to build a car like this and do some racing. In my case, I wanted to put something together that could maybe run for three years without having to take it apart and do maintenance on it. It can run all weekend and all you have to do is set the valves. We’ve got sixty runs on it now. I checked it out during the winter and all it needed was another set of tires.”
With about a dozen cars in the Nostalgia AA Gasser (Nostalgiaaagassers.com) club that Oddy runs with, the spectacle, affordability and fun of running these cars has attracted attention. They have as many events as they want to run and tracks are calling them for even more appearances. Sponsors, including Summit Racing, Abruzzi Transmissions & Converters, Pro Racing Fuels & Rossiter Racing Engines, are all aboard with more coming
“It’s all about preserving these cars that we ran in the sixties,” Oddy said. “As a twenty-year-old, I was lucky enough to race with K.S. Pittman, Junior Thompson and the Hill Brothers. I was just a young whippersnapper, but those guys taught me a lot about stuff I’m even doing today. It was a big help even during the Pro Mod years.
“I’ve found more joy in this than anything else I’ve done in a long time,” he continued. “It’s a lot of fun with a little bit of racing, and it takes me back to yesteryear. We all helped each other trying to get our cars running good; everybody worked on everybody else’s cars. We have an awful lot of fun and that’s what we like doing.”
Sounds like that’s true riches to us!
The inimitable Jim Oddy and Black Betty, a nod to the rock anthem of the same name by Ram Jam.
Chicken soup out of chicken feathers, Jim took an assemblage of mundane parts and created a record-setting race car, a rolling testament to Oddy’s creativity and engineering skills.
The very rare ’34 Willys two-door sedan “concept vehicle,” all Jim needed were cutting tools and a little time to create this very unique body style.
Jim’s rolling testament to KISS: “keep it simple, stupid.” He’s proved it doesn’t take the latest high-buck super whiz-bang parts to make a runner, which is the whole idea. Make it simple, invest wisely and have fun. The 9-inch Ford runs from 4.11 to 4.56 gears.
Junior Ward recorded a track record 4.824 at 146.45 in the eighth-mile. At 2400 pounds and a standard cast-iron 362-ci small-block—not too shabby.
The exterior may be a little rough around the edges, but check out the fit and finish of the interior, especially the cage.
Text and Photos by Rod Short