The Savoy Bros.' "Soul to the Bone" Henry J gasser (circa 1970)
February, as we know, is Black History Month. February is also the official start of the drag racing season, beginning with the annual NHRA Winternationals at Pomona. Coincidence? Maybe. I can't claim any expert knowledge about Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, W.E.B. DuBois or other textbook notables, but I do know a bit about drag racing; and I know that African American gearheads have been trailblazing the quarter mile for some 50 years. They might not be Dr. King, but I think their stories deserve a retelling, too.
Some background: American car racing has three major branches -- road racing, oval, and drag/lakes racing -- and each has its own distinct socioeconomic history and heritage. Road racing first developed as the leisure pursuit of coastal bluebloods, who had the cash to afford pricey European sports cars and the winding country lanes on which to play with them. Oval track racing -- including open wheel, sprints, and stock cars -- has always been a more blue collar phenomenon, evolving out of the county fairground horse tracks of the Midwest and South. Nascar shares this heritage, along with an additional link to moonshine runners in the segregated South. For obvious economic and social reasons, neither of these racing forums were conducive to Black participation.
By contrast, drag racing evolved with fewer cultural barriers. Like oval track racing it was a blue collar phenomenon, a natural extension of straight-line street racing by young guys in cheap homebuilt hot rods. Unlike oval racing, it developed largely on the postwar West Coast, a society less encumbered by the legacy of segregation. As a result drag racing was more or less born 'multicultural' and egalitarian; the roll call of hod rodding greats -- Xydias, Iskenderian, Hirohata, Pedregon, Karamesines -- reads like a passenger list from Ellis Island. And African Americans were there from its inception.
The Bean Bandits circa 1955
One early example is the legendary Bean Bandits hot rod club of San Diego, whose trademark yellow cars struck fear through SoCal dragstrips and dry lakes throughout the 50s and 60s, and is still going strong today. Though primarily Mexican-American, the club included several Black members like Harold Miller who earned their share of wins during the dawn of hot rodding. During the 1950s African-Americans were represented pitside as well, by top mechanics such as Eddie Flournoy who wrenched for Jim "Jazzy" Nelson's fuel coupe. Flournoy's son Rodney went on to become a competitive NHRA funny car pilot in the 1980s, and Rodney's daughters Thais and Naasira are now quarter mile up-and-comers.
The hot rod phenomenon spread eastward throughout the Fifties, hooking thousands of grassroots competitors. One was a young farm kid from the heart of Nascar county, Malcom Durham. He began his career in 1957, racing a '56 Chevy at Newton Grove, NC. After landing a gig as a mechanic at Hicks Chevy in Washington DC, Durham successfully campaigned his Z-11 427 '63 Impala in A/Stock, frequently defeating legends like Bill "Grumpy" Jenkins and "Dyno" Don Nicholson. He eventually moved up to the new A/FX Factory Experimental (a.k.a. "Funny Car") class, where his "Strip Blazer II" broke the 200 mph barrier in 1969. During NHRA's golden anniversary in 2001, Durham was named as one of its 50 greatest drivers, and his dragstrip legacy lives on through his engine building sons Raynard and Byron.
Stone Woods & Cook "Swindler"
'41 Willys Gasser 1965
In the late 1950s the NHRA's new ban on nitromethane fuel begat the "Gasser Wars" era -- the wildly popular competition for the crown of the barnstorming Gas Coupe classes. Fred Stone and Tim Woods, two African-American building contractors from L.A., teamed up to campaign "The Swindler," a gorgeous candy blue '41 Willys coupe powered by a blown Olds, and quickly established themselves as kings of the division. Woods piloted the Swindler to the first 9-second time in A/GS at San Gabriel in '62, but later ceded driving duties to Doug "Cookie" Cook to concentrate on his real talent -- race promotion. Woods became drag racing's good natured Muhammad Ali, relentlessly promoting grudge matches between his Stone Woods & Cook team and archrival "Big John" Mazmanian. Without Tim Woods, there would be no "SUNDAY! SUNDAY! SUNDAY!"
Roy Drew and his rocket powered "Black Magic"
Volkswagen after a 160 MPH wreck in 1966
But when it came to showmanship, I'm not sure even the talented Tim Woods could hold a candle to Kansas City's Roy "Mr. Pitiful" Drew. Foresaking the more traditional drag classes, Drew delighted thousands in the Sixties with his exhibition rocket powered (!) VW Beetle. Using a thermolene-fueled Turbonique thrust turbine rocket engine (I'll have much much more about Turbonique in a later post), Drew's Black Magic Bug was a major spectator draw, and consistently stomped some of the top fuel dragsters of the day. In one memorable match race he shut down Tommy Ivo's 4-engine Showboat, turning a mind-boggling 9.36 ET at 168 MPH.
Big Willie Robinson and the Brotherhood, 1972
As the Sixties drew to a close, the social upheaval seen in other spheres of society influenced drag racing as well. In the wake of the 1968 Watts riots, legendary street racer Big Willie Robinson figured out a way to use drag racing to change society. An imposing, muscular 6'6" Vietnam vet with a badass Hemi Daytona Charger and trademark bowler hat, Big Willie was the undisputed king of the late '60s- '70s East L.A. street racing scene. In response to the growing influence of drugs and street gangs, Big Willie and his wife Tomiko organized the 'Brotherhood of Street Racers' as a way to channel the energy of South Central youth away from crime and violence -- "peace through racing," as he put it. Working with local officials and police, Big Willie was the driving force behind the building of Brotherhood Raceway Park on L.A. harbor's Terminal Island. Before it closed in 1995, BRP was a popular destination for young South Cental racers and is widely regarded as the birthplace of import drag racing -- the 'Fast and Furious' scene. Efforts are now underway to reopen BRP, hopefully extending Big Willie's legacy to another generation of L.A. gearheads of every ethnicity.
Jackson Bros. 'Mandingo' Vega Funny Car
Black participation in drag racing continued to grow in the 1970s, with a heavy dash of Black Pride seen on their paint jobs. In the Hunter's Point section of San Francisco, brothers Jim and David Savoy ran a speed shop and on weekends campaigned at Famosa and Half Moon Bay in a wicked little straight axle Henry J gasser named "Soul to the Bone" (see top of post) festooned with a wildly un-PC native caricature and the Black Power salute logo of their Unity Racing Team. The Funny Car ranks were populated with a number of African-American racers sporting similar tongue-in-cheek blaxploitation car names - like the "Soul Shaker" Camaro of Georgia's R.S. Thomas, Dee Simmons' "Big Black Go-Rilla," the "Mandingo" Vega of brothers Tyrone and Ron Jackson, the "Super Fly" Mustang of Indianapolis' Stacy Shields, and the "King Boogaloo" Duster of Clarence Bailey. For a man/machine name combination, though, it's hard to top Western Bunns and his "Soul Twister" Funny Car.
The '70s saw the emergence of one drag racing's most successful Black shoes, Pro Stocker Ronald Lyles. In one of the most competitive class/eras in drag history, Lyles more than held his own against legends like Sox & Martin, Grumpy Jenkins, and Gapp & Roush (yes, Jack Roush did real racing before he got involved with Nascar). In 1973 Lyles piloted his Hemi Cuda to a 8.89 ET, becoming the second Pro Stocker into the eights.
Other barriers would fall in the '80s and '90s; L.A. truck company owner John Kimble became the first Black Top Fuel pilot, and the Funny car ranks were joined Rodney Flournoy, Eric Reed, and Tony McCallum, who notched a win at the '89 IHRA Spring Nationals. The IHRA Pro Mod class saw Lorenzo "Killer" Brooks, while former NBA stars Larry Nance and Tom Hammonds each began fielding NHRA Pro Stock teams in the late '90s. African Americans have excelled in in Pro Stock Bike, with veterans like current #2-ranked Antron Brown and Reggie Showers (a top-level class competitor despite having two prosthetic legs), and newcomers like Redell Harris and Michael Phillips.
I could go on; if you're interest in additional information I recommend this article at DRO, the BlackDragRacers.com website, and Leah Kerr's excellent book "Driving Me Wild." Keep in mind that this doesn't even touch the major influence that African Americans have had in the history and culture of Lowriders / Imports / street customs, a topic I'll cover later.
So next time you read some furrowed-brow media coverage bemoaning Nascar's "lack of diversity," remember: country music is fine, but it doesn't appeal to everybody. And if you go to the local dragstrip, you'll often find that the header pipes are playing some sweet soul music.