Street Was Neat, but Santa Ana Was Neater"You had a lot of opportunities out here to do the things you wanted to do. We'd go to Compton Drive-In [restaurant] and the Clock [drive-in] in Long Beach at the [traffic] circle where the hot cars were. We'd street race on Clark Avenue in Long Beach and Artesia Boulevard between Central and Avalon Boulevard in Compton. We'd usually do this at 1:00 in the morning. We'd get a guy standing out there, he'd flag us off, and we'd take off. A lot of times we didn't have a guy out there; we'd just watch each other and nail it."
All that changed when Santa Ana dragstrip opened July 3, 1950, when Art took his girl in his '36 Ford custom to watch: "I took my '36 four-door sedan out there and ran 102 mph, which was pretty darned good then. That was the first time I ran down a dragstrip. I knew this is what I wanted to do.
"Lloyd and I used to go racing all the time. You had the dry lakes, which I started running in 1948, or you could run Saturday night at Long Beach and go to Santa Ana on Sunday [The freeway system was virtually non existent in the L.A area in the early '50s]. It took us two hours to get to Santa Ana from Compton-from stop sign to stop sign; it was all two-lane streets."
The First of Many Firsts"I got a '34 three-window coupe, decked it all out, and began running at the lakes and at the drags. Then the #25 car came along. Le Roy Neumeyer had it. I cleaned it all up, painted it bronze, chromed it, did all the things...I wanted it to look nice. Le Roy didn't have an engine for it, so I put my flathead engine in it. We went out to Santa Ana, and I think the first time out there we ran 116 mph. It kept going up to 120, 126, 130, 138, finally 140 mph."
Chrysler Had a Better IdeaWhen the Hemi made its debut in the '51 Chrysler New Yorker, Art embraced it in a big way. As quickly as they became available, the incredible sounds of the blown engine began filling the air in Chrisman's Garage. Art went on to win the first U.S. Fuel & Gas Championships in Bakersfield driving the same car (which resembled a Champ Car as much as a dragster) in 1959 with a Hemi replacing the flathead.
"I had a guy that worked at a trucking company in downtown L.A.; he would get all the old used blowers off the GMC 6-71 engines. We took them all apart and cleaned them all up. We didn't know anything about clearances then; we just made sure the paddles didn't rub each other. We blew a few of them up in the process."
Hot Rodders Owned the BrickyardHowever, it was a matter of time before someone dropped a Hemi into a Championship Car. Eddie Kuzma built an Indy roadster in his L.A. shop; Tony Capanna built the Hilborn-injected Dodge (the smaller "Red Ram" was more adaptable to the tight confines of an Indy Car than the Chrysler "FirePower"). Art and Lloyd were part of the '55 Dean Van Lines Special crew at Indy. The late cigar chomping Jimmie Bryan was the driver. Many will be astonished to learn that the fuel the crew chose was the same volatile concoction drag racers used on a regular basis-a healthy mixture of nitro. Time ran out to qualify the car, but during practice the car did a lap of 140 mph, which would have put it in the field. A blown engine caused the car to spin, resulting in some frame damage which put it on the trailer for home.
Gas or Nitro?"In 1958, NHRA [based on an accord of some 22 dragstrip managers] changed everything to gasoline from fuel," explained Art. "They decided it was too dangerous because they couldn't stop them; they were going faster than the dragstrips allowed them to stop. We went to Oklahoma City in 1958 to run the Hustler car. We had a blown Chrysler and we ran gasoline. We ran around 160 mph. They were all running nitro back there. I decided that gasoline was okay, but we started running nitro again. Once we did that, we started going faster and faster. We were the first car to run 180 mph at Riverside [Raceway] in the early part of 1959."