September 21, 2013

Drag racing reunion brings competitors back together again

If bench racing had a sanctioning body, the 50th reunion of Old Drag Racers held in northwest Wichita last weekend would have qualified as a national event.

If bench racing had a sanctioning body, the 50th reunion of Old Drag Racers held in northwest Wichita last weekend would have qualified as a national event.

More than 200 people and a couple of dozen vintage race cars showed up to relive the good old days of M-N Raceway, located only a few miles north of the reunion site.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” said Barbara Patterson, who, along with Jon Lemon, put the reunion together. “Some of the people hadn’t seen each other since the 1960s.”

“I was overwhelmed. I knew this was a good idea,” Lemon said. “It was just a bunch of guys bench racing, no program, no awards. It was not about how much you won or lost, it was about the other guys you raced. It’s the people who made it happen.”

That’s not to say there weren’t some intense rivalries involved.

“I thought, `I hope we can keep the roof on the place. There’s going to be a lot of egos in here,’” Lemon observed.

Patterson said it was appropriate to stage a reunion on the 50th anniversary of M-N Raceway (now Kansas International Dragway) since age is creeping up on many of the early racers. She didn’t want to risk a rainout (always a threat to any drag racing event), so she asked Don Bolain for the loan of his private car barn.

“I told him I wanted to get this together before all these guys are gone. He volunteered the building, even the tables and chairs,” Patterson said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better place. I can’t thank Don enough. Without him, it wouldn’t have happened.”

Participants were greeted by a pair of fuel-injected ’57 Chevies, the black hardtop campaigned by Del Buller and the white hardtop driven by Bob Cassil, sitting side-by-side as they entered the grounds. Memories of those two fierce competitors lining up against each other in the staging lanes came rushing back to those who were lucky enough to have experienced their runs down the quarter mile.

Chuck Grimsley, the driver of the “Rebel Rouser” Pasadena Dodge funny car, is now in his 80s, but he was on hand and posed for photos with the altered wheelbase car, which is in museum-quality condition.

“Kansas John Wiebe,” one of the icons of front-engined AA/Fuel Dragster competition at the national level, strolled the grounds and embraced old racing friends he hadn’t seen in decades. Lyle Smith displayed his radically chopped A/Altered American Austin coupe, which is being restored.

“This body survived being crashed once and burned once,” he said.

Del Blades’ last Nova drag car, known as “The Rapier III,” was also there and in the process of being restored.

“This event gave me the incentive to get going on this,” said Stan Brown, who now owns the car.

Two rail dragsters, one the timeless flathead driven by Whitey McDonald, the other the injected Chrysler Hemi of Rex Raines, were parked in the grass. Both drivers were there to answer questions about their racing careers.

Vern Holzman, Allan Patterson, Tom Wilhite and Art Carlton all shared stories with their colleagues. Barbara Cassil, accompanied by her racing sons Bill and Tracy, was there. And Dave Stuckey, best known as a customizer, but an avid drag racer in his day, made the rounds, too.

Inside, tables were covered with scrapbooks full of photos and newspaper clippings documenting the racers’ exploits, and a screen was set up showing vintage footage of dragsters, gassers and stockers ripping down the strip.

“Somebody asked me, `When are you going to do this again?’” Barbara Patterson said. “I said, ‘Probably in about 50 years.’”

A full catered meal was served and everyone went home with some great new memories and, hopefully, the phone numbers and email addresses of other racers they had reconnected with.

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