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photo by Tom Schiltz
Editor’s Note: As if anyone doesn’t know, Wally Parks is the founder of the National Hot Rod Association and perhaps the most important single figure in drag racing. He is currently Chairman Emeritus of NHRA and a Board Member. He is Chairman of the NHRA Motorsports Museum, which now is his primary involvement. We requested his journalistic talents (He was the first editor of Hot Rod magazine) to pen his recollections of his first drag race. He was gracious enough to take time for us.

My most memorable early drag race (although it wasn’t called that, then) took place on a remote section of Westchester Boulevard, outside Los Angeles near the site of today’s LAX International Airport. It was in the early 1930’s and its origin was a late night gathering of that era’s hot rodders (and that term hadn’t been coined yet, either). It was little more than a friendly “choose off” between a few owners of exceptionally hot cars, and when the race site was agreed upon we all jumped into whatever we were riding in, headed for the contest ‘venue.’

The wide divided highway, in a then remote unpopulated area, seemed a fitting place for the occasion and we parked cars alongside the roadway - an eager gallery awaiting arrival of the gladiators.

One of the hottest and most impressive challengers was a black 1931 4-cylinder Ford pickup truck, owned by two Cornelius brothers, who used it daily in their business of delivering meat. It had a wild-sounding 4-port Riley engine and a strong reputation for winning street matches around the Los Angeles area.

There were others too, mostly roadsters and some coupes, but the one that impressed me the most, even to this day, and probably did more to hook me on the world of building unique cars (later to be called hot rods) was a 4-cylinder 1927 Chevy. It had started life as an open touring car, but the back section had been removed - creating a trend later known as “chopped off tourings.”

It sat down low, with a tubular front axle, and had an aluminum hood with an Overland radiator. Rear frame rails were exposed, but a big capacity gas tank was securely mounted back of the front seat. I think the tube front axle may have come from a Franklin automobile and the gas tank from an early Lincoln. A king-sized exhaust pipe ran along one side, and its healthy tone, when revved up, was nothing less than musical - focusing on the mellow low notes.

Cars were lined up two abreast on the vacated highway, with a common signal given for each pair’s takeoff. The distance of the race was “about a half mile,” with the leading car declared a “winner” for each match. No prizes, no trophies - just satisfaction and, of course, bragging rights.

I cannot recall the makeup or the identities of the other vehicles that took part in that ecstatic night’s display of car originality and performance. But what I do remember is that the competition boiled down to a final match - the chopped-off touring and the meat truck - and it was the little low-slung Chevy, with a number 57 painted on its side, that took home the bacon, so to speak. It was conceived and crafted by one of the most talented car builders of the times; a man named Ralph Schenck, most of whose innovative creations were way ahead of the pack in those pioneering days of California’s dry lakes racing, with results that continued well into Post World War II years.

Little could he have known how much influence his chopped-off touring would have on the ensuing years of my lifetime compassion for fantastic cars and competition - at the dry lakes, on the salt flats, off the streets and into the modern world of championship drag racing. I thank him more than he can ever know for the lasting results of that long ago “first drag race.”



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