Cars

Vern Holzman: Drag racing patriarch

The Wichita Eagle

“It’s kind of a cute little car,” says Vern Holzman, running his hands over the curvaceous sheet metal of a bright red 1949 Austin sedan. “You can’t find one flat spot anywhere on it.”

He turned the English-built Austin into a wickedly quick quarter-mile drag car more than a half century ago, swapping out the puny 4-cylinder engine for a supercharged Chevy smallblock V-8 mated to a 4-speed racing transmission. The car was a handful to drive, he recalls.

“It went all over the place when I drove it. At the starting line, I would line up at an angle. It would lift the front end off the ground and when it came down, I would be going straight,” he grinned. “It would lift the wheels in every gear.”

Vern Holzman has a long and storied history in drag racing and race car building, pioneering straight-line racing innovations as the founder of Holzman Race Cars. His knowledge and skills have been passed down to second and third generations who now operate the business on Greenwich Road.

And with his wife, Toni, at his side, the 87-year-old Holzman still looks forward to race weekends with his family.

“It keeps us out of trouble,” says grandson Chad Holzman, who now handles driving duties on the original Austin drag car. Brother Jimmy Holzman drives another red Austin sedan and the great-grandchildren compete in the Junior Dragster division.

“There could be as many as eight of us out there at one time, in rotation, we have so many cars,” Chad notes.

It all traces directly back to his grandad, he says.

“He’s forgot more stuff than I’ll ever know.”

And Vern Holzman has held onto many of his race cars, with a pair of bright red ’57 Chevy post cars and a supercharged ’55 Chevy sedan in his personal shop. There’s also a ’57 Ford Thunderbird convertible he restored, parked alongside a recreation of a maroon-and-black ’36 Ford coupe like the one Vern drove in high school.

The elder Holzman said he began racing when he was 17, often along Greenwich Road, which was a lightly traveled route 70 years ago. He and his wife built their home and business near the intersection of that street and Kellogg. They later moved the whole operation, house and two good-sized metal buildings to their current location after they sold the first property.

The first Austin, originally built in gasser style, has evolved over the years into what is known as a “bracket racer.” The objective there is to dial in the elapsed time you believe the car will record, and then try to outrun your opponent to the finish line without going quicker than the elapsed time you dialed in.

The supercharged engine has been transplanted to the other Austin, replaced by a 400 cubic inch smallblock Chevy V-8 fed alcohol racing fuel by a “Ron’s Flying Toilet” fuel injection system. Sending power to the 13-inch wide Hoosier racing slicks is a 2-speed PowerGlide racing transmission equipped with a Neal Chance stall converter.

But Chad only uses high gear in the setup, as the car tends to get unpredictable if launched in low gear. The engine will wind up to 7,500 rpm by the end of a run, thanks to the 4.88 gears inside the narrowed 9-inch Ford rear end. The Austin typically makes it from one end of the quarter mile to the other in about 9.50 seconds at 145 mph.

“The car is very consistent,” says Chad. “If I do my job, it can win.”

Vern Holzman points out that when he drove the car, it could top 150 mph, and that was when it still rode on the original frame, with drum brakes. The body is now lowered over a square-tubing racing frame with 4-wheel disc brakes.

“When I drove it, it was 17 inches taller … it was nice to work on. You could almost walk under it,” Vern joked.

With 70 years of racing experience to his credit, Vern Holzman can now leave the driving to the younger generations, while still enjoying his own racing memories with a group of buddies who join him every week for a coffee/gab session in his shop, surrounded by some of the cars that made those memories possible.

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