NHRA Motorsports Museum: Smokin’ the Track for Two Decades

  • story by David M. Brown
  • posted on 10/2017
  • posted in: Great Garages

As soon as you get a green light on your Christmas tree, do a run over to the NHRA Motorsports Museum in Pomona, California.

Presented by the Automobile Club of Southern California, the museum, 1101 McKinley Avenue, includes 80-plus historic hot rods, customs, dragsters and land speed vehicles. Guests also enjoy exhibits, motorcycles and other vehicles representing motorsports and the culture of hot rodding.

In 2018, the museum celebrates 20 years in its current home at the Fairplex, next to the landmark Auto Club Raceway, site of the first National Hot Rod Association-sanctioned event in 1953. Here, the NHRA starts and finishes its season with the staging of the Winternationals and the Auto Club Finals, where the year’s champions are determined.

The museum is in the historic Art Deco-style Home Arts Exhibition Building built for the Los Angeles County Fair by the Works Project Administration in 1939.

“The NHRA Motorsports Museum is the only institution of its kind dedicated solely to the story of the American hot rod,” explains Larry Fisher, the executive director. He notes that while it documents the history of the NHRA, the museum is a 501c(3) nonprofit independent from NHRA.

“Here we celebrate our shared history every day through our exhibitions, programs and events. In addition, we plan museum activities across the country, all directed at raising awareness of the uniquely American experience of hot rodding and our own brand of motorsports.” 

Four core areas are central, although other aspects of the motorsports experience are included. These are the culture of hot rodding; rods and customs as a form of artistic expression; land speed record attempts on the dry lakes, including the Bonneville Salt Flats; and organized drag racing.

The museum also stages special exhibitions and events such as “Axes and Axles,” “Track Roadsters,” “King of the Kustoms of George Barris” and others. In 2014, the Chrisman Brinker Gallery of Speed debuted.

“We carry on these activities in the tradition of the founder of the NHRA and our museum, Wally Parks, who coined the motto ‘Dedicated to Safety,’ which remains part of who and what we stand for to this day,” explains Greg Sharp, who curates the collection. Parks founded the group in nearby Glendora in 1951.

The NHRA Motorsports Museum produces Hot Rod Reunions® that take place throughout the United States. Each year, the events return to Bowling Green, Kentucky, and Bakersfield, California, where this year the 26th anniversary will be celebrated. Each brings together past racers, hot-rodders and those who’ve influenced the automotive culture.

“At each reunion, we select several individuals and a grand marshal who are honored for their contributions to the field of hot rods, customs and racing,” Fisher says.

The events feature quarter-mile nostalgia drag racing; a drive-in hot rod display; specialty vendors catering to the racer and enthusiast; a vintage parts and ephemera swap meet, offering automobilia such as issues of Hot Rod to a complete race car; and, a phenomenon started by the museum nearly two decades ago: the Cacklefest®, a rolling display of nitro-burning vintage dragsters.

“Most of all, the reunions attract tens of thousands of the most dedicated and well-informed automotive enthusiasts from around the globe,” Fisher says.

“The most unique aspect of the NHRA Motorsports Museum Collection is that, with few exceptions, each vehicle is a one-of-a-kind: a hand-built or modified example,” Sharp adds. “It is fair to say that you won’t find any of these vehicles in any other collection. It includes many iconic, record-breaking vehicles as well as rare surviving examples of racing cars that are important to the hot rod story.”

Some Quick Time Slips

Here’s a quick look at some quick museum cars:

•Chrisman’s #25

Dry Lakes Modified/Dragster

Builder and Driver: Art Chrisman

Engine: 304-cid flathead V-8

Best Performance: 10.20 ET, 143 mph

Gifted by: Bill Lindig and Family

The car is believed to have been built in the early ’30s as a dry lakes modified and is arguably the oldest hot rod in existence. It’s been powered by Rajo T’s, Cragar A’s, flathead V-8s, overhead Arduns, Mercurys and, finally, a Chrysler hemi.

In the late ’40s, LeRoy Neumayer bought it from Doug Caruthers, and, with Art Chrisman, began racing the car at the Santa Ana Drags. When Neumayer was drafted for the Korean War, Chrisman took over ownership, lengthened it, added disc wheels and slicks to make it a dragster, Sharp explains.

In February 1953, it became the first dragster to exceed 140 mph. It was the first car to make the first run at the first NHRA Nationals in 1955. It repeated this at the 25th and 50th U.S. Nationals, all with Chrisman at the wheel. Sadly, he died in July, 2016 at 86.

•Beast III

Bonneville Streamliner

(circa 1952)

Driver: Art Chrisman

Engine: 331-cid fuel-infected Chrysler Hemi

Best Performance: 238.095 mph

Gifted By: Dr. Mark and Newie Brinker, Houston, Texas

Beast III was built by cam grinder Chet Herbert, with the body designed by Rod Schapel. The car was the fastest single-engine car in America at the time. Schapel designed the body using a one-tenth scale model in what may have been the first use of a wind tunnel in amateur automotive competition, Fisher says.

Hastily completed in an around-the-clock marathon, the car arrived at Bonneville on the fifth day of the week-long meet. Chrisman reached a top one-way speed exceeding 238 mph, with a two-way average of 235.910 mph, qualifying him as one of five charter members of the prestigious Bonneville 200 MPH Club.

•Beast IV

Bonneville Streamliner

(Circa 1953)

Driver: Le Roy Neumayer

Engine: 368-cid fuel-injected Chrysler

Best Performance: 236.36 mph (two-way average over one mile)

Gifted By: David and Marianne Duthu

Following his successful Beast III streamliner of 1952, as seen in the museum’s Chrisman Brinker Gallery of Speed, Chet Herbert built a slightly smaller aluminum-bodied entry for 1953, Fisher explains. Legendary Barris Kustom built the body in only three weeks. The first time out, Neumayer broke two international and six American records.

The car evolved, being powered by two Dodges, three Chevys, two supercharged Chryslers and a single-supercharged Lincoln; finally, it was vintage raced in the 1990s with a six-cylinder GMC, Sharp explains.

After abuse from four decades on the salt as well as countless modifications, Beast IV needed work. Webb Automotive Art of Burton, Michigan, did the flawless restoration, with aluminum work by Craig Naff and paint by Darryl Hollenbeck’s Vintage Color Studio.

•English Leather

Fuel Funny Car

(Circa 1978)

Driver: Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen

Engine: 500-cid supercharged

Keith Black Aluminum Hemi

Best Performance: 6.05 ET, 235.60 mph

Gifted By: Don Trasin, Columbus, Ohio

Fans voted the event this car took part in as the #1 in the history of the NHRA U.S. Nationals. During the 1970s, Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “The Mongoose” McEwen were in a rivalry considered among the biggest in drag racing.

At the ’78 Nationals at Indy, the Funny Car final round featured the two old teammates, rivals and partners. Prudhomme nearly had the field covered and was appearing in his sixth straight Indy final.

McEwen ran the best time of his career to down The Snake in honor of his teen-aged son Jamie who had died from leukemia only weeks earlier. The two veterans of the drag racing wars embraced, with tears, in the shutoff area, Sharp says.

•Chuck Porter’s 1949 Ford Pick-up

(Circa 1955)

Engine: 331-cid 1953 Cadillac

Restored By: Jim Busby Racing

Gifted By: Richard Munz, Madison, Wisconsin

The March 1955 cover story of Hot Rod Magazine reported: “Porter’s Goldenrod Yellow ’49 Ford hauler incorporates practically every body modification known to man, being chopped five inches, sectioned five inches and channeled down over the frame an equal amount.” Chassis lowering accounts for another seven inches, for a total of 22 inches lower than a stock truck, Fisher says.

In the ’50s, Porter’s craftsmanship was well known in the L.A. area as well as his driving talents. No “lead sled,” the car has a bed and running boards formed from aluminum. The engine, built by the famed Max Balchowsky, was moved back ten inches and coupled to a ’37 La Salle transmission.

Porter’s car was a regular winner at the Santa Ana and Pomona strips, turning an impressive 112-plus mph in the mid-1950s.

•King and Hansen Belly Tank


(Circa 1949)

Engine: 140-cid Flathead Ford V-8

Best Performance: 118.89 mph

Gifted By: David Duthu, Houston

Built in 1948, the car combines a Model T Ford frame and an aluminum drop tank from a P38E fighter plane. In 1947, the Southern California Timing Association classed cars as roadsters or streamliners, which were in turn divided into classes according to engine size.

With a small Edelbrock- and Winfield-equipped version of Ford’s 1939 economy V-8, originally rated at 60 horsepower, King and Hansen of the Sidewinders club reached a speed of 118.89 mph at SCTA Time Trials at El Mirage Dry Lake.

Members of the club consistently ran second in the A/Streamliner class to fellow member Alex Xydias and his So-Cal Speed Shop Special. A true barn find, the car has been “untouched” since last raced in 1950, Fisher says.

The NHRA Motorsports Museum is open nearly 300 days each year Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., and closed on major holidays. The museum offers free access for educational field trips and program visits.

Admission for nonmembers is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors 60 and older, $8 for juniors 6 through 15 and free for children under 5. An AAA discount is available. NHRA and NHRA Museum members are admitted free.

During NHRA National Events at Auto Club Raceway in Pomona, the museum is open extended hours. Please check the website, nhramuseum.org, for information on admission and events during the Auto Club Finals and Winternationals. Also, call 909.622.2133.

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