Pontiac Drag Racing Legend, Speed Parts Manufacturer, and Straight Line Pioneer Jess Tyree Dies

Pontiac Drag Racing Legend, Speed Parts Manufacturer, and Straight Line Pioneer Jess Tyree Dies

The unrelenting march of time has called another drag racing great home. This time it is Pontiac racing legend and famed header manufacturer Jess Tyree. His drag racing story is one that rings familiar to those who love the humble beginnings of the sport. Born in Oklahoma, Tyree’s family moved to California when he was a kid and by the time he was old enough to own a car he was out there street racing with the best of them in the area. While today Orange County has some of the most densely populated and desirable real estate in the world, back then it was wide open and the perfect place for the budding culture of hot rodding to take root and explode into a national craze. One of Tyree’s contemporaries and rivals on the streets back then in the later 1940s was a kid named Mickey Thompson. Seriously.

While there were Pontiac starts dispersed across the country, Tyree was the man on the west coast and his relationship with the automaker also involved Mickey Thompson his old street racing pal. After gaining experience and a reputation at strips like Santa Ana with a variety of different cars, it was a Pontiac Chieftain that put Tyree on the map in the late 1950s. His success with that car and the brand’s desire to change their image from stodgy to hot got him factory backing and allowed him to race with Thompson (remember, Thompson was tied into Pontiac for this racing efforts at this time including drag racing stuff AND land speed racing. The most notable car he ran with the Thompson lettering on the side was a 1962 Super Duty Catalina. He won both the Winternationals and the March Meet in this car and his star was really on the rise.

His B/FX Tempest which was given to him by Pontiac honcho John DeLorean was a killer and had great success both match racing and in formal competition around the country. He upgraded that car to A/FX status and competed with it as well. Interestingly, Tyree got that very car back in the 1990s and returned to the sport, notching a couple of ANRA nostalgia drag racing championships. The man and the car were much loved competitors in the California series. Back in the 1960s when running the FX car, Tyree concurrently ran a Pontiac in A/stock and that car carried him to AHRA and NHRA national event victories. Nicknamed “The Big Stinker” the 1963 Catalina was 421 powered, backed by a 4-speed transmission, and packed a 4.30 rear gear ratio. Originally delivered to Ford for “comparison” testing, John DeLorean rescued that car and sent it along to Tyree so it could be raced. When originally delivered to Ford the famed aluminum bodywork was replaced with steel. Tyree apparently received all the aluminum panels after the fact and installed them later. The car was so successful that Tyree competed with it until 1967 before selling it.

Jess really rocketed up the fame charts in the middle 1960s when he embraced the exploding funny car scene and debuted a Firebird with the Tyree Headers sponsorship on the side. A successful businessman, Tyree made substantial earnings on the header business which according to some reports was moving upwards of 500 pairs of headers per month at its peak. Eventually he sold out of that business but keep right on drag racing, especially in the funny cars. While his earlier efforts were Pontiac powered, it did not take long to learn the limitations of the Pontiac engine on fuel. Eventually Chevrolet engines replace the Pontiacs and by the end of his funny car career it was Chrysler hemi power all the way like the vast majority were running.

Tyree had some interesting funny car accomplishments. The first was being a charter member of the Coca Cola Cavalcade of Funny Car Stars which was a highly popular and successful roving group of funny cars racers that would storm around the country running a (by today’s standards) mental schedule of appearances and races. It was a great way to make a pile of money and a great way to grow your profile as a racer because of the way Coca Cola promoted the competitors via various media sources like magazines and the radio. Jess Tyree was also one of the first people to appear in Australia with a funny car, inspiring a generation of Aussie drag racers to jump on the flopper train like their counterparts in the USA had done. Of course they did!

In 1973 Tyree retired from the sport and lived life as a family man, father, and grandfather before rekindling his drag racing passion in the late 1980s with the reacquisition of the Tempest he had run so well in the 1960s. That car provided him with lots more joy, fun, and time with friend and family since being rebuilt in the early 1990s and for that we can only imagine he was very thankful.

Jess Tyree by all accounts lived a great life both in and out of the sport of drag racing. We’re sorry to see another legend leave us but we’re buoyed by the fact that so much of his life was spent smiling, winning, and participating in the sport we all know and love so much. Godspeed, Mr. Pontiac. You will be missed.

Here are a smattering of images showing some of Tyree’s coolest cars –


tyree2 tyree3 tyree4


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13 thoughts on “Pontiac Drag Racing Legend, Speed Parts Manufacturer, and Straight Line Pioneer Jess Tyree Dies

  1. Koolkat57

    Met Jess at the NHRA Hot Rod Reunion in Bowling Green a bunch of years ago.
    Great guy to talk to, and a wealth of Pontiac Performance information.
    Thoughts and prayers for his Family.

  2. Gino Ofria

    Jess was my friend and I will miss him dearly. Thank you for all our conversation we shared.

    Yea, this one hurts.

  3. Bill Brown

    Met Jess through a friend of mine His knowledge and the people he new was fantastic. The stories he shared were priceless. Had great times at his parties. Jess always had time to talk to people.

    Thoghts and prays to his family.

    You will be missed

  4. Pete Stack

    Met Jess at the 2011 GTOAA Nationals in Portland Oregon.. A legend in the Pontiac World for sure.. You will be missed Jess .. By all !!

  5. LetGo

    For those wanting to say farewell to Jess Tyree, funeral services will be held this Friday, February 5th. Loma Vista Mortuary, 701 East Bastanchury Road, Fullerton, CA 92835. Viewing from 10:00 a.m. until 11:30, followed by graveside services.

  6. Rita Tyree Rider

    Thank-You for a great read. Jesse would be so proud of it. Jesse has always been not only my big brother, but my hero for sure.
    Your Younger sis
    Rita Joyce

    1. Ms. Joyce (formerly Mike Leiby's wife,'Pontiac' britches) Armstrong

      Appreciate article on Jess. We became good friends with he & Patti Tyree in early 1960’s when my ex, Mike Leiby, joined up with Jess’ header shop making headers & became Jess’ s “Crew chief” and grew to close friends living the exciting & unforgiving “Drag Racing” life for many good years & fun times. Jess & racing crew,’ one being my 1st born son, Scott Leiby, thoughtfully stop’d by to ‘catch up’ awhile in Medford, OR on their way home from Portland meet awhile back. They made my day!! More like, my YEAR! Hadn’t seen Jess & guys since the ’70s.. Bart & Scott came up for awhile last year. Needless to say, the Jess Tyree family are extended family to mine & his passing this week is like losing a big brother. Hug Patti for me, Jess. You both made a significant impact on this world my famiyt thanks you for your special friendship & making our lives more worthwhile & fun. Missing you already. God bless &see ya’ on the other side…RIP.. Our ♡s & prayers to the family..

  7. Verl Stanford

    I knew Jess most of my life. I am about eight years younger. Jess lived with his family in the same neighborhood in Buena Park over on California Street. We lived on the corner of Indiana and 9th Streets on the other side of this big vacant lot called “The Triangle” (it was shaped like a triangle and still is). Back then we could see each others homes across that open space.

    In the 1950’s (and maybe before that) Jess had a couple of horses that he would “stake” to the ground and let them graze in The Triangle. I must have been about 8 or 9 years old at the time. Well, I had acquired a BB gun and I saw those two horses out there in that field so I decided to go hunting.

    I can remember this as plain as day. I actually got down on my belly with my BB gun in hand and crawled across the grassy field toward the horses. I got close enough to start aiming when all of a sudden here comes this older boy just walking slowly over toward the horses. I didn’t get a good look at him so I didn’t know who it was. He didn’t say anything. Scared the heck out of me. I hoped that he didn’t see me. I turned around, on my belly, a slowly crawled to the taller grass and eventually made it across The Triangle and back home. Whew!! That was about 64 years ago. I had never shot a horse and after that I never tried to shoot horse again, or any other animal for that matter.

    In August of last year, after his birthday party, some of us went over to Jess’ house with Rita and Craig, his sister and brother-in-law. Well, I asked Jess if he recalled ever seeing a boy out in The Triangle trying to shoot his horses with a BB gun. To my surprise he said he did and he also said he knew that was me. Well, that cleared that up. I don’t have to wonder about that any more.

    Back in 1977 or thereabouts I needed a new engine for my 1971 El Camino. I didn’t have the time or energy to get one and do the job myself so I went downtown in Buena Park to the local Chevy dealer. I went to the service department and to my surprise there was Jess. He was the service manager. I can’t recall the name of that Chevy dealer but it was on Manchester Blvd. across from Jerry’s Bar-B-Q. Maybe it was McGuire Chevrolet??

    Jess recommended a long block Chevy 350 Target Engine with four-bolt mains. That’s what I got. I left the car there and walked home. It was finished the next day. I still have that engine, although it is now in a 1976 El Camino that has not been on the road for years.

    Jess will be sorely missed.

  8. Dani Katz

    Our Dearest Friend Jess, it was an honor to be your friend and share some great times together. We will always Love you and Cherish the Wonderful memories. Love and Prayers for Jess’s Family. <3

  9. craig rider

    My brother for over fifty years , we had great times together and some
    bad , you always got us out of the bad times w/the big ole SMILE .

    1. Wm Laybourne

      Uncle Jess’ story will forever be tied with Aunt Patty, the kids and our entire family. They were most blessed, but with terrible tragedies overcome with a huge smile and great faith. He was the patriarch and wore it well. We almost lost him several times to accidents and track collisions. No one even mentioned when his funny car caught fire and he pulled himself out at 80 m.p.h through the back window. Burning his entire body, his ankles to the bone (before boots were required) and skin grafts were just beginning to be an accepted practice. They will always be my heroes. They personified humility, faith and love!

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