Everything You Know About The Nitro Ban Is Wrong: The Real History Of The Infamous NHRA Nitro Ban

Everything You Know About The Nitro Ban Is Wrong: The Real History Of The Infamous NHRA Nitro Ban

By Bret Kepner – Nearly every person who knows about it refers to it as the “NHRA Nitro Ban”. Likewise, the blame for it is almost always placed squarely on the shoulders of NHRA President and founder Wally Parks who, as history now often claims, wiped all of the nitromethane-burning drag racing machines off the face of the planet with a single decree banning all “fuel cars” from NHRA competition and mandating gasoline as the only allowable fuel at NHRA events.

In fact, Parks was forced to go along with a decision made, (without his consultation), by a group of drag racing promoters who were concerned about maintaining the sport’s business viability more than any safety issues. The entire mess stemmed from an immediate and rash reaction to the results of a single automobile during one day of racing in 1957.

At the center of the controversy was Californian Emery Cook, the sensational driver of “Red” Henslee’s nitro-burning, rear-engined roadster who set quarter-mile records throughout 1956. When Henslee quit the sport at the end of the season, Cook teamed with Cliff Bedwell to campaign a dragster known as the “Isky Cams/Crower U-Fab Manifold Special” using another carbureted, 354-cubic inch Chrysler Hemi on nitro.

On February 3, 1957, the Cook & Bedwell dragster attended an open competition event at Lions Associated Drag Strip in Long Beach (CA). Cook’s first timed trial of the day reset the Lions track elapsed time record at 9.28 seconds with top speed of 156.25 miles per hour. His second timed trial tied the Lions track speed record, (9.54/157.06), and the third, a 9.88/159.01, tied the World Speed record, (set by Bobby Alsenz in Kenny Lindley’s “Miss Fire II” at the NHRA Nationals in Kansas City in September, 1956).

In class eliminations, Cook won the A/Dragster title with a 9.72/158.17, (over Jack Ewell in Jim Kamboor’s dragster), to advance to the Top Eliminator final round. Against Mickey Brown in the Brown & Frank flathead-powered B/D, Cook clocked a 9.80 at an incredible 165.13 mph. Because a new World Record speed by more than six miles per hour, (out of nowhere), was deemed suspicious, Cook was asked to make another run after eliminations. He complied and posted a 10.02/166.97. The drag racing world was stunned and the repercussions were immediate.

Three days after Cook’s runs, C.J. Hart announced gasoline would be the only fuel permitted at his Santa Ana (CA) Drag Strip beginning on February 10, 1957. While Hart cited the lack of stopping room at many tracks as a problem, his decision was based on an entirely different concern. Hart insisted he was responding almost solely on the clamor from participants to curb the skyrocketing costs of drag racing.

While it defies the concept held so dear by purists, drag racing in this era was not cheap. Exotic fuels, although a part of the sport since its introduction, only caused more parts to be destroyed and the price of competing in the faster classes was becoming unbearable for many teams.

It should be noted Cook held the Santa Ana track record at 157.15 mph, (set on August 19, 1956), at the wheel of the Cook & Henslee rear-engined modified roadster. The same car set the Lions speed record the night before, (August 18, 1956), at 157.06.

Santa Ana was restricted to a mere 1320 feet of paved shutdown area; the track was extremely short and featured a slight right turn just past the finish line. Lions Drag Strip, on the other hand, was built with almost 2400 feet of asphalt past the finish line. Braking parachutes were not yet in use and all drag racing vehicles used drum brakes. Therefore, a maximum of shutdown space was imperative.

To most racers, however, the sudden jump of six mph, (ten mph in the case of the Santa Ana and Lions track records), only meant better parts would be required and more money would be burned in the pursuit of being competitive with the Cook & Bedwell beast.

On February 15, a meeting was held in Los Angeles involving a total of seven other California drag strips all of which agreed to follow Hart’s ban on nitromethane. The tracks were San Fernando, Pomona, San Gabriel, Lions, Saugus and the northern California track at Kingdon. Although unable to attend the meeting, the Colton strip also agreed to the new program which included not only the gasoline mandate but to rules which banned multiple-engined machines and ALL forms of supercharging.

John Mead, a representative of the Cascade Timing Association in Washington state, also attended and announced all seven tracks within the CTA would join the movement. The overall nitro ban would take effect on March 1, 1957. The premise adopted by the group was one of increased participation, control of expenses and, in the case of Perry Luster’s widely-used National Racing Affiliates insurance package, exceptional cost savings in the premiums paid by the tracks. This decision came one week after the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the National Safety Council both made public announcements declaring their opposition to drag racing in any form. Several media outlets insisted the move would precipitate “a nationwide ban on exotic fuels” and most applauded the move to stem the extreme costs of nitro racing. Many noted the nation’s sole supplier of nitro was planning a rate hike in 1957.

The fact Wally Parks has not yet been mentioned is no accident. While everything from Cook’s 166 mph pass to the fuel ban to the meeting of the tracks took place, Wally was at the National Speed Trials in Daytona Beach (FL) setting records in his Hot Rod Magazine-sponsored “Suddenly” 1957 Plymouth. When he returned, Parks found a monstrous number of the NHRA’s western facilities issued ultimatums forcing the NHRA to accept the new rules or the tracks would leave the fold.

Parks had no choice but to submit. Hart agreed to make Santa Ana an NHRA facility if Wally adopted the rules; it was an unsanctioned track for the previous seven years. Paradise Mesa (CA) joined the group of gas tracks when it was agreed twin-engined cars would be banned and only single-motored machines would be permitted. The effective date for the rules revisions was moved to April 1, 1957.

An official announcement was not issued from the NHRA until March 20, 1957, and the message came from Bud Coons rather than Wally Parks. The release stated the 1957 NHRA Nationals, to be held at Oklahoma City (OK) would include only gasoline classes of competition. No “nationwide ban of exotic fuels” for NHRA tracks was mentioned and both “open fuel” and “gas” classes remained in the NHRA rulebook.

Bear in mind, Emery Cook didn’t stop drag racing. Plenty of tracks continued to run nitro classes including the Famoso strip in Bakersfield (CA) where Cook set the World Elapsed Time Record at 8.89 seconds, (at 163.35 mph), on April 7, 1957, in the same event at which Ernie Hashim became the second driver over 160 mph. However, tracks in Louisiana, Arkansas, Rhode Island, Oregon, (along with more in California), adopted the gas-only program despite the fact the NHRA had not yet mandated it with sanction.

Then, the movement took an interesting twist. Beginning in late April, several tracks, (including Saugus, Colton and Pomona), dropped the new “all gas” format when each track’s spectator count dropped roughly the same percentage as the crowds had risen at the dragstrips still running nitro classes. Emery Cook was a major part of this decision.

As an example, Cook went to Saugus when they lifted their fuel ban on April 28 and reset the track record at 158.22 mph. As soon as Colton returned to fuel racing, Cook went there and reset his own World Speed Record at 168.89 mph on May 5, 1957. On May 12, Cook went to the NHRA Regional race at the high-desert track in Inyokern (CA); the event still ran “open fuel” classes and Cook set the track record at 155.17. This went on all year with Cook clocking speeds ranging from 163.33 at Phoenix to 166.66 mph in Hawai’i.

Cook held the absolute speed record until “Red” Greth pushed the rear-engined Speed Sport Roadster to 169.11 mph at Tucson (AZ) on October 20, 1957. Then, on November 10, 1957, Don Garlits fired his “shot heard ‘round the world” at Brooksville (FL), at 8.79/176.40. For comparison, the gas-burning records at the end of 1957 were 9.70/149.

Throughout the 1957 season, the majority of NHRA sanctioned tracks still permitted both types of fuel. Of course, the American Hot Rod Association (AHRA), the Automobile Timing Association of America (ATAA), the International Timing Association (ITA), Drag Racers, Inc.(DRI) and every other governing organization permitted nitro machinery at their sanctioned tracks. That’s where the fans went unless their only option was one of the few gas-only tracks. It’s important to remember the NHRA did NOT sanction the majority of tracks in the country in 1957. In fact, it held less than a quarter of them.

One by one, the majority of the tracks which formed the gas-only succession returned to nitro racing, (and, for that matter, dual-engined dragsters). Paradise Mesa and Kingdon went back to fuel before the end of 1957. Pomona allowed alcohol before the end of the year and permitted nitro again in 1959.

Only at the beginning of the 1958 season did the NHRA formally announced gasoline was the only fuel permitted at its sanctioned tracks. The first new track to join the “official fuel ban” was Santa Maria (CA) on January 5, 1958. Many NHRA tracks, (though not a majority), continued to run fuel classes with their gas programs. Basically, the ruling made certain the NHRA’s sole National Event, (until a second, the Winter Nationals, was added in 1960), and its Regional races remained gas-only affairs. East of the Mississippi River, however, gas-only NHRA racing was more quickly accepted if only because the east coast initially featured fewer nitro-burning teams.

Despite its seeming benefits, gasoline fuel did little to change the safety record of the sport. Even at the gasoline-only tracks, drag racing was a very dangerous game in 1958. The gas-only San Gabriel (CA) Valley Drag Strip was the site of two driver fatalities in a span of seven days in September and Lions Drag Strip, which suffered from one of the worst safety records in the sport, even experimented with a 990-feet (3/16-mile) distance in November in an effort to decrease top speeds and to gain shutdown distance.

One of the many California tracks which continuously offered nitro racing was the Famoso (CA) Drag Strip near Bakersfield operated by the Smokers, Inc., car club. Led by president Bob Trubey, vice president George “Hut” Watkins, secretary Charles “Chuck” Edwards and treasurer Jim Sughrue, the Smokers operated a successful drag racing franchise for years in the area and their track at the Famoso Air Field often produced records.

In the years prior to the construction of the nation’s interstate highway system, travel was a grueling affair which precluded most cross-country tours. Since the NHRA Nationals was a gas-only affair in 1957 and 1958, only the AHRA Nationals held at Great Bend (KS) and the ATAA World Series of Drag Racing conducted at Cordova (IL), offered true assemblies of the nation’s best fuel cars prior to 1959. However, both races drew few California teams because of the week-long travel associated with the trip.

The Smokers designed a race which would serve as a gathering of the sport’s quickest and fastest fuel teams from across the country by bringing the strongest cars from the east to the capitol of nitro racing in the west. With only six weeks notice, the Smokers lured some of the sport’s biggest stars to Famoso with the only bait needed. They simply paid the teams a cash guarantee which covered all expenses and offered a reasonable profit on to which racers could add any prize money. With a sizeable purse for the race, the event would draw virtually all the nitromethane racers in California and become, almost entirely due to the “Nitro Ban”, one of the most prestigious events in the history of the sport.

Set for Saturday, February 28 and Sunday, March 1, the event was coined the United States Fuel & Gas Championships. The Smokers opened their season with a race on January 4 which resulted in a new track record and they hosted a “warm-up” for the Fuel & Gas battle on February 1 which produced eight runs over 160 mph and a staggering twelve passes over 175 mph. The publicity from both meets only added to the incredible hype surrounding the March 1 showdown and the list of stars scheduled to appear.

Meanwhile, the first meeting of the new California Drag Strip Operators Association was held in Madera on January 17, 1959. While the council was created to determine policies regarding the sport’s future, (not the least of which was an attempt to decide whether to adhere to the “Fuel Ban”), the group failed to accomplish anything of note. Perhaps the only significant result of the CDSO gathering was the determination the “Fuel Ban” was “the single most divisive aspect of drag racing today”.

From the perspective of profit, however, fuel cars and their stars were drag racing’s top moneymakers. The first driver whom the Smokers lured was the quickest and fastest of them all. Less than sixteen months earlier, Don Garlits was a young Floridian who approached Emery Cook for help with his ailing dragster during the fourth annual World Series of Drag Racing held August 21-25, 1957, at Cordova (IL). Coming into the event virtually unknown outside of his home state with a career-best of 144 mph, Garlits clocked only 133 mph before asking Cook for assistance. Cook showed Garlits how to construct a hand-operated fuel pressure pump with which Garlits clocked a subsequent 139 mph pass. In the semi-finals of eliminations, Garlits beat Cook & Bedwell in what remains one of the sport’s all-time biggest upsets, 9.92/150 to Cook’s losing 10.12/160. It was the race which, to this day, even Garlits admits earned him a “name” and “made” his entire career.

On November 10, 1957, Garlits became the quickest and fastest man alive and the first to exceed 170 mph with a stunning 8.79/176.40 at Brooksville (FL). He spent the 1958 season repeating those numbers across the east and midwest posting an amazing best of 8.36 at Montgomery (NY). Garlits won the 1958 AHRA Nationals before clocking a staggering 180.00 mph at Brooksville on December 14, 1958. While his “Don’s Speed Shop” nitro dragster owned the record books, it was regarded as even more incredible since it used neither fuel injection nor a supercharger. The black rig achieved those numbers with only eight Stromberg carburetors atop its 450-cubic inch 392 Chrysler Hemi. The Bakersfield event would be Garlits’ first appearance west of Texas and was of enough importance to schedule Garlits on an exhibition pass at precisely 3:00 PM on the first day of the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships.

Also appearing in California for the first time would be Serop “Setto” Postoian, whose Detroit-based unblown, carbureted 359-inch 354 Chrysler Hemi-powered nitro dragster beat Garlits in the final round of both the 1957 and 1958 ATAA World Series. Postoian clocked a career-best of 8.99/167.43 at Cordova on August 20.

Another driver making his first trip to the west coast was Texas nitro star Bobby Langley and his unblown, carbureted 354 Chrysler Hemi-powered “Scorpion II”. Although he suffered an embarrassing loss to Garlits in the final round of the annual Texas State Championships at Caddo Mills (TX) in September, Langley won nearly every other event in the state in 1958. He recorded the best numbers in Texas history with a 9.13/169.49 at Houston on December 7 and, one week later, ran a personal best of 8.93/169.89 alongside Garlits at Brooksville (FL).

The three easterners would face a field which included virtually every nitro dragster based west of the Rocky Mountains. Leading the pack was the car and driver which had snared Garlits’ speed record only two weekends before the event. On February 15, 1959, California State Champion Art Chrisman drove Frank Cannon’s supercharged, Hemi-powered “Hustler” dragster at Riverside (CA) Raceway. Chrisman had already hit 8.77/174.08 performances at Famoso on January 4 and returned to post an 8.92/175.09 at the same track on February 1. At Riverside, however, Chrisman unleashed a series of 177.00, 179.81 and 181.81 mph blasts to become the fastest driver in the sport even though utilizing a reportedly small 25% nitro mixture.

Other entries included Bakersfield track record holder Gary Cagle who ran 9.21/175.78 on February 1 in the nitro-burning, supercharged Hemi-powered “Herbert Cam Special” and Bill Crossley in the Hashim-Hylton-Crossley nitro dragster which used a small GMC 4-71 supercharger to record a stellar 172.08 mph speed at Vacaville (CA) on November 23, 1958, to become the fastest driver in the state.

Tony Waters would wheel Smokers treasurer Jim Sugruhe’s infamous purple 1923 Ford A/Modified Roadster which, with a supercharged DeSoto powerplant on nitro, became drag racing’s quickest and fastest production-bodied machine on February 1 with an astounding 8.99/173.07 at Bakersfield.

Equally anticipated was the dragster of 1958 NHRA Nationals winner Ted Cyr, Bill Hopper and Joe Dunsmore. Obviously, Cyr won the 1958 NHRA title at Oklahoma City (OK) burning gasoline; he won the A/Dragster class over twenty-five other hopefuls and then advanced through three more rounds of eliminations for the overall Top Eliminator title. At Santa Ana on January 4, 1959, Cyr set the record for supercharged, single-engined gas dragsters by running 9.47/160.71. However, the team switched to a 35% nitro blend and recorded a strong 170.77 mph while winning the annual Carrot Carnival event at Holtville (CA) one week before the Fuel & Gas Championships.

As the name of the Bakersfield event suggested, the Smokers weren’t offering only nitro racing. The event would feature some of the biggest stars of the gas dragster ranks, as well. Although Art and Walt Arfons owned the fastest speed for anything on gasoline after their Allison V12-powered “Green Monster” ran 168.89 mph in 1958, the Ohioans would not be attending. Leading the field was the world’s quickest and fastest Blown Gas Dragster, Glen Ward in the “Howard Cam Special” mount using side-by-side twin supercharged Chevys totaling 613 inches. Californian Ward ran 9.10/167.73 on gas at Famoso on December 7, 1958, and also posted an 8.92/171.42 on pure alcohol at Famoso on January 4, 1959.

The world’s fastest single-engined Supercharged Gas Dragster, Jim Nelson & Dode Martin’s “Dragmaster” which went 9.61/163.63 at Santa Ana on January 18, was entered. Rising star Tommy Ivo would attend with the world’s fastest unblown Gas Dragster, (at 9.41/154.37), his injected Buick-powered machine.

The entry list alone was enough to force the decision by the staffs of two of southern California’s most successful “nitro tracks”, Pomona Drag Strip and Riverside Raceway, to close during the weekend of the Fuel & Gas Championships. Both were of the belief all fans and racers would be in Bakersfield.

The race borne of the “Nitro Ban”, (and which would survive over a span seven decades), drew a reported 31,000 fans on Sunday alone although a realistic estimate will never be known since so few people actually paid for a ticket at the one open admission booth. The hordes of spectators, (responsible for a traffic jam the likes of which had never been seen outside of Los Angeles), simply tore down the fences and walked into the facility. Eliminations on the final day lasted ten straight hours and produced twenty-one runs over 170 mph. History records the Top Eliminator win by Art Chrisman over Tony Waters in a twilight duel which ended with the roadster spinning out halfway down the dark strip. Cagle became the third driver over 180 mph. Tommy Ivo won the gas dragster title.

With no lack of irony, the meet’s only serious incident was the fatal crash of James “Jay” Cheatham, from whom Ivo took the 9.40/153.62 unblown gas world record on February 1. Cheatham, a true star of the gas-burning dragsters who defeated the all-conquering Arfons “Green Monster” at Oklahoma City, died after completing a 150 mph run in gas eliminations on Sunday when he hit a 55-gallon drum used as a course marker in the shutdown area at the unlikely speed of 75 mph.

Suprisingly, Garlits, Postoian, Langley and even Emery Cook all suffered problems which kept them from being competitive at Famoso. However, the gathering itself ensured the future of nitro-burning drag racing despite all costs or any perceived inequities.

In the end, virtually all of the tracks in the original protesting group returned to fuel racing before Wally Parks lifted the ban at the beginning of 1963. Even Lions Drag Strip went back to nitro racing and created what many witnesses insist was drag racing’s true “golden era” from 1962-1971 when the fabled facility operated totally outside the influence of the NHRA. The exception was Santa Ana; Hart kept it a gas-only NHRA track until it closed in 1959.

Believing the change would truly aid the sport’s reputation and longevity, Wally Parks stuck with the “Nitro Ban” far longer than he should have. Decades later, he would admit the Ban was one of only two regrets he held from his half-century at the helm of the National Hot Rod Association.

Created for all the wrong reasons, used as a threat against the NHRA and Wally Parks, enforced at some tracks while totally ignored at others and a source of bitterness for decades to follow, the “Nitro Ban” failed in nearly every manner possible. It did, however, give rise to an event which is now ranked as one of the most hallowed in drag racing. Indeed, the U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships may be the only good thing to come from the infamous “Fuel Ban” of 1957.

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