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Nitro Art

A few weeks ago, Cruisin’ Grand in Escondido was the site of a spectacular “Cackle Fest” where more than a dozen classic sixties-era front engine dragsters were on hand to stimulate your senses. Your sense of smell would be overwhelmed by the pungent odor of nitromethane racing fuel being burned up in the cylinders of blown and injected Chrysler hemis. Your ears would be pummeled with the staccato blasts of the sound waves created by that burning nitro. Your eyes would be captivated by the dancing flames coming out of the exhaust headers of these fire-belching monsters. And, your sense of touch, through your feet, would be assaulted by the repeated shockwaves of those exhaust pulses, as the ground vibrated under you. 


These ground-bound missiles were from a different era – one that held style and grace on nearly as high a pedestal as Top Speed and Low Elapsed Time.  The Top Fuel dragsters of the 1960’s represent the pinnacle of performance automotive art. Yes, Jaguar, Ferrari, and Maserati had their style and grace on the road courses, but the full-bodied dragsters captured the imaginations and devotion of thousands of race fans throughout the United States.  Their bodies were hand-built by craftsmen with names like Tom Hanna, Steve Davis, and Jack Hagemann and these bodies were sleek, slick, pointy-nosed works of art. Their paint jobs were equally as artistic as the aluminum underneath. Exquisite scallops, gold-leaf lettering, and faded pearls all could be found competing for your eyes’ attention. These bodies and their paint framed the most exquisite and purposeful of engines – the infamous Chrysler 392 cubic inch Hemi.

GMC 6-71 blowers were polished and fuel injection systems by Hilborn and Enderle competed for the top spot on the top of these 1200 horsepower behemoths. The design of the exhaust seemed to favor the “zoomies” which curled the exhaust down out of the cylinder head, and then up and back to theoretically blow the spent rubber off of the slicks in a cleaning action. Not sure if the theory really worked, but they sure looked and sounded bitchin’.


The Top Fuel dragsters of today’s NHRA circuit are nothing more than rolling billboards with every square inch of body panel filled with sponsor logo stickers. There’s obviously been a sea change in the competitors’ priorities in drag racing today. I understand that the high cost of today’s racing makes every dollar important, and that those stickers represent contingency money. It may be necessary in today’s racing climate, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. That being said, let’s take a look at this rolling art form known as a “Top Fuel Dragster” when they were in their heyday. It’s not likely to happen again at this level of esthetic perfection.  Enjoy these pictures of a time gone by, brought back to us by dedicated teams of car owners who refuse to let this wonderful part of our hot rod past die.