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Place to Remember History of Hot Rods

April 10, 1998|SHAV GLICK

Baseball has its Coop- erstown, N.Y., football its Canton, Ohio, basketball its Springfield, Mass. They are all cities with national museums focused on the history of those sports.

Now drag racing has the National Hot Rod Assn.'s Motorsports Museum at Fairplex Park on the L.A. County Fairgrounds in Pomona. The 28,500 square-foot museum opened Saturday with displays and cars depicting more than 50 years of hot-rodding.

"This is like a dream come true," said Wally Parks, founder of the NHRA. "We started our formal planning on this project in the early '90s, but hadn't been able to settle on a location until we were able to find a building at the Fairplex.

"I think it's important that it's not just a drag racing museum. We are pleased to be able to make a tribute to other forms of racing in our hot rod world, like street rods and dry-lake racing."

Parks, a dry-lake racer himself before he organized the NHRA in 1951, maintains an active role in the organization, despite having recently celebrated his 85th birthday.

Each of the other sports incorporates a hall of fame into its museum, and the NHRA is already working on plans for its honor society.

"It's something we've had in our planning all along," said Graham Light, NHRA senior vice president. "We wanted to open as soon as possible, so the hall of fame got pushed in the background a bit, but it's definitely coming."

Centerpiece of the museum is a 10-foot statue of the NHRA's trophy, which has been presented in a smaller form to all national event winners since the early '60s. The gold figure, which stands on an octagonal wooden base, is dedicated to Parks and his wife, Barbara.

"This project has been long overdue," said Steve Gibbs, who left his job as NHRA's director of competition to become museum director. "It means a lot to me to see it come true for Wally Parks during his lifetime.

"One thing we hope to do is preserve the great history of drag racing, and better educate new fans about the sport's past."

The museum will be open Wednesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and is located off McKinley Avenue at Fairplex Gate 1. It is near the Pomona Raceway, site of the NHRA's two Winston Drag Racing series events: the season-opening Chief Auto Parts Winternationals and the season-ending Winston Finals.

The huge building was formerly an exhibit hall for the county fair, built in 1939 as a WPA project. Renovation was done by Mike Jones, former manager of the long-gone Orange County drag strip in Irvine.

One of the most impressive displays, dramatically showcasing the development of the sport's top-fuel dragster, is a side-by-side display of two of Don "Snake" Prudhomme's cars: the 112-inch Greer; Black & Prudhomme dragster built by Kent Fuller in 1964, and the 300-inch Skoal Bandit dragster built by Brad Hadman in 1994.

"It's hard to believe, looking at it, but when the Greer, Black and Prudhomme car was running, people thought it was a monster," Gibbs said.

Prudhomme dominated the sport in the '60s with a 398-cubic-inch supercharged Chrysler engine built by Keith Black. The car's top speed was 196.62 mph. The Skoal Bandit was the last dragster driven by Prudhomme before his retirement. With a 500-cubic-inch Keith Black hemi, the Snake hit 294.88 mph.

Also on display are such drag racing treasures as:

* Ed Iskenderian's 1925 T-Roadster, which ran 120 mph at El Mirage dry lake in May 1942.

* Kenny Bernstein's Budweiser King dragster, the first to top 300 mph with a 301.70-mph run in 1992 in Gainesville, Fla.

* Mickey Thompson's Challenger I land-speed record car, which reached 406.60 mph on one run at Bonneville Salt Flats in 1960, but failed to set a record when mechanical problems prevented a return run. The streamliner, powered by four supercharged Pontiac engines, is owned by Thompson's son, Danny, and was restored in 1994 by Jim Travis of Whittier.

* Bob Glidden's pro stock Ford Fairmont, which he drove to the 1980 world championship with a 327-cubic-inch Cleveland Ford engine.

* Don "Big Daddy" Garlits' Swamp Rat top-fuel dragster, the sport's first successful rear-engine dragster that led to the rear-engine revolution in the early 1970s. Powered by a 426-cubic inch supercharged Dodge hemi engine, it ran 244 mph. Garlits, who attended the NHRA museum's opening, loaned the car from his own museum in Ocala, Fla.

* Tommy Ivo's four-engine Buick exhibition dragster and a Buick-powered 1923 Ford Model T that were designed and built by the child movie and TV star for use as magazine cover cars and for his barnstorming tours.

* The Chi-Town Hustler funny car, displayed without its body to showcase its complex construction. Frank Hawley, who runs a driving school at the Fairplex, drove the car to the world championship in 1982 and 1983 and also won the first Big Bud Shootout.

From other motor racing arenas are such as:

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