Dick was one of the original California beach boys, splitting his time between the dry lak
Imagine screaming down the quarter-mile to 116.50 mph in this baby! The front tires are Wa
Dick was still in the Merchant Marines when he posed with his dad in front of their Anahei
Dicks blue track roadster was the ultimate hot rod in both looks (50 Oakland R
This classic battle between Dyno Don Nicholson and Dick Kraft at Santa Ana took place befo
While in high school, Dick learned of the dry lakes and wore grooves in the road getting t
His zeal for the lakes never dampened, and while still in the Merchant Marines, he got off
Dick built his tube-frame roadster for a new form of competition attracting hot rodders in
Dick hadnt seen this photo since the 40s, then High Desert Roadsters member Je
Dick in his Kraft Special (later called the Highland Plating Special) doesnt look pa
Except for the hubcaps, only the bare essentials were tolerable on what was to become th
Nothing was normal in the 70s when it came to the show circuit. Barris built his sha
Before The Bug became the first record-setting dragster, it was a humble weed-sprayer on t
Eighty-one-year-old Krafty Dick is at it again. A half-century later, Dick is building ano
What better place to meet Krafty Dick Kraft than at John Forces incredible drag racing headquarters in Yorba Linda, California? Recently, I was fortunate enough to tour John Forces high-tech facility as part of a small group that included, among others, Ed Iskenderian and Dick Kraft. When John arrived to show us around, he spotted Dick and Isky; the roles were reversed and John became the fan for a change. It makes sense that he should feel this waywhen John Force was in diapers, Dick Kraft was ringing out his new state-of-the-art rail job at the Santa Ana Dragstrip.
Catching The Racing Bug
Dick was born in the sleepy California farming community of Anaheim in 1921, where the smell of citrus grovesnot exhaust fumespermeated the air. Some dang fool gave me a roadster when I was 14 and ruined my whole cotton-pickin life, begins Dick Kraft on his entry into the world of hot rods. Then, I had a 29 Model A with Kelseys and a Winfield head that I paid for by working on the family ranches. I wasnt getting anywhere [with the four-banger] so I bought a 32 roadster with side mounts and 18-inch wheels for $200. In high school, we had a car club called the Plutocrats. Every Saturday night, we would street race to hold [onto] our number-one status. All the guys in the club would later go on to hold records. I ran the 32 only one time at the lakes and turned 98 mph.
Street racing, while we dont condone it, is a part of hot rod history. The legends of the sport didnt become heros by collecting stamps as kidsthey were racers. Dick recalls: Before you were 18 [in Orange County], if you got tickets, you had to go to traffic school on Saturday in Santa Ana. I went to traffic school from the time I was 16 til I was 18 without a Saturday morning off.
Rod & Custom ran a photo in the Jan. 02 issue showing Dick at speed in The Bug. Some readers may have noticed the size of Dicks arms. Dick could bench-press 300-plus pounds in those days, and what better place to hang out with a body like that than at the beach? Naturally, he went for the girls, but the real draw to places like Newport Road (between neighboring Santa Ana and Costa Mesa) was street racing.
I really went to the beach to street race, says Dick. When there wasnt anyone to race, wed get kind of bored and go out into the parking lot and street fight. The beach and sailors went together, and after a few brews, the boys in white sometimes had a differing of opinions with guys like Dick. You can probably guess who got the upper hand.
Dick credits his high school shop teacher with encouraging him to attend night school to learn a trade and calm down. Young Dick learned to work with machine tools and equipment, building manifolds and headers, later going on to Fullerton Junior College.
In The Marines
When the war broke out, Dick decided to join the Merchant Marines. Dick was rather enterprising when it came to picking up an extra buck while serving his country. I had never smoked a cigarette in my life, but they allotted me three cartons a week and I had a locker full. Id sell them or trade for guns. He was thinking ahead to when the war would end and the money he made by selling to guys with a nicotine habit would fund his racing habit. Meanwhile, Dicks friend and future Indy great Jack McGrath was building Dick a hot engine. When I got home, Dick says, I wanted to go racing; I didnt want to be putting an engine together.
Dick had two things on his mind during the war: staying alive and racing. Once, with a few hours off from his ship, Dick wasted no time getting to Anaheim where Jack McGrath was waiting for him with his 32 and a rope to tow the bare-bones roadster to a midnight street race.
There was no starter, no teeth on the flywheel, no generator, and it had one motorcycle light, recalls Dick. It was a pushmobilewe had to give it a shove to start it. We towed it on a rope all the way to the Piccadilly Drive-In in West L.A. I beat every guy there that night. I beat Jack and Manuel Ayulothey both had 32 Ford roadsters and my car was much lighter. My one light was getting dim so we towed it home and put it away. That was on Saturday night. On Sunday morning, here come 4,000 marines on Pier 91. We loaded them and headed for Pearl Harbor.
Dick decided to stay in the Merchant Marines after the war ended, but the urge to feel the dust of the dry lakes in his face was stronger than the spray of salt water. It was heaven to set foot, briefly, on the lakes in 1946 when he ran his prewar T at Harper. He recalled how, with a few days leave, he, McGrath, and some friends built what looked like a cross between a kayak and a Soap Box Derby racer.
I bailed off the ship on Friday and went home. I had the engine that McGrath built and I wanted to get going on a carI only had two or three days before I had to be back on the ship. I built the frame out of 2x2 box tubing. All I had was a gas welder, so we welded the tubing together with that. We didnt have any springs, so we welded the front end and the rear end [with the gas welder] to the axles. We sent somebody to steal a Coca-Cola sign to make the body out of. We didnt have any rivets, so we screwed the halves together with stove bolts. By Saturday, we finished the thing and I took it to El Mirage on Sunday and ran 135 mph. After seeing the guys at the lakes and having my new motor, I decided Id had enough [of Marine life] and signed off that bucket of bolts for good. Dick stayed in the Merchant Marines until 1947. When he left, he wasted no time becoming a challenger.
Drag It Out
Dick was an avid street racer, but as soon as C.J. Pappy Hart and Creighton Hunter started holding legal drag races at a seldom-used taxi strip, Dick became a regular competitor. For the first time, guys like Dick could race legally on a paved track with cops watching the action rather than chasing it. With this fledging sport came a different kind of race car. Running for top speed at the lakes was one thingyou had miles to do it. But drag racing consisted of just a quarter-mile. Top speed mattered, but acceleration mattered more. As a result, vehicle weight became a big factor.
Dick showed up at Santa Ana in 1950 with a contraption that consisted of four wheels, a motor, and a seat. The only piece of sheetmetal on the car was the cowl. Dick gave his rail job a name: The Bug. His single-seater was registered as a roadster, though we now know that it became the worlds first dragster. Before its drag racing debut, The Bug had to earn its keep on Dicks parents orange groveas a weed-sprayer. Dick commandeered what was left of the 27 T frame and made a race car out of it. The weed-sprayer ran a number of times at Santa Ana with both a roadster body and a coupe body before it was stripped to the bone.
Running at the drags became part of Dicks routine, sharing time with his other hobby: surfing. It was not uncommon for him to appear on the start line at Santa Ana with his typical racing gear: goggles and damp swim trunks. Wed body surf at Newport, jump in the thing, and go drag racing. Running nitro with my swim trunks on and burning the hair off my chestboy, those were the days, laughs Dick.
Back To Work
Dick worked for his brother on his orange grove maintaining the farms equipment. At the same time, he worked for George Barris to pay off the debt incurred for the Kraft Specials chrome. My specialty was chassis work and engines. I never built a car that spun out on me, he says.
Krafty had a knack for spinning out the competition, though, as well as getting the most out of his hot rods. He appeared to have an unlimited amount of cars, when in reality he was switching the bodies. There was another reason competitors called him Krafty, and it was the paradox that is Dick Kraft: mixing the crude with the graceful. Just when fellow racers thought they had him figured out, Dick pulled a 180. Its hard to believe that the same man who built The Bug also constructed two of the most beautiful track roadsters to appear at a race course or car show. His blue car graced the Oakland Roadster Show in 1950 after being exposed to the all-encroaching dust and dirt of El Mirage, running 122 mph. The Kraft Special (the red car) was displayed at the 51 Oakland show. Dicks Kraft Special was lettered professionally, dripping with that expensive shiny chrome and constructed like a Swiss watch.
Hot Rod Or Sports Car?
The sports-car races started to attract hot rodders, and Dicks friend and part-time employer George Barris was one of them. Barris shop was drawing an increasing share of the sports-car set, and he became interested in what was going on 100 miles east of his business. Palm Springs in the early 50s was a quiet little desert community that had a sparsely used airport. It was easy to shut the runways down and hold amateur sports-car races on the weekends. Barris threw out a challenge to Dick: Lets get you out of that T shirt and Levis and into a white shirt and tie, and join the Sports Car Club of America. The wire-wheel car (Rudge wire wheels cut down to 15 inches for more strength), as Dick refered to his hot rod sports car, appeared on the cover of the Oct. 54 issue of Hot Rod magazine. I did the frame, the front end, the rear end, the transmission, and the motor, and my friend Art Ingles did the body, remembers Dick. When Dick mentioned doing the frame, he was referring to a sophisticated truss-tubular chrome-moly chassis that only someone with engineering savvy could design and build. It rivaled anything that came out of Italy and showcased the kind of talent Dick possessed.
Dick Krafts life reads like folklore. Hes done it allhis way. Hes still doing it all, too, even down to resurrecting The Bugtwice. Like so many old hot rods, The Bug might have been scattered into oblivion had it not been for an inquiry by Don Garlits. When Don Garlits got his museum going, says Dick, he wrote to me and said, I understand you have parts of The Bug lying around at your brothers ranch. Would you put it together for me? It wasnt too long before the word got out: Dick Kraft is putting The Bug back together. Then Steve Gibbs, vice president/director of the NHRA Motorsports Museum, asked Dick, Why dont you put one together for the museum? Dick has the original frame and some other parts, so we put one together for the museum in Pomona.
Each rail job is made up from parts from the original, he says. During this time, Dick had retired to Mexico for a number of years and still maintains a home there. His wife of 30 years, Margarita, has been by his side helping Dick build a new version of his rail: The Bug II.
While Dick doesnt have those 16-inch arms anymore, they havent given way to buggy whips, either. He still skips rope every day, gets up at the crack of dawn to join his buddies for breakfast, and generally tries to stay in trouble. Once Dick gets The Bug II on the street, its inevitable that hell get pulled over. Lets just hope its for curiosity this time.