Rod Authority Rewind – Diary Of A Dragster

As a seasoned editor at Power Automedia, I’ve made fantastic friends and met all sorts of car guys (and gals) at our mothership in Murrieta, California over the years. With different strains of automotive afflictions, the diversity of passion from my colleagues has been exiting and educational.

Alas, in a sea of auto geeks, I always felt like I was the black sheep of the PAM family. I like hot rods, fiberglass sports cars, big American sleds from the ’70s, atomic coffee shops, Sam Cooke and Los Angeles noir.

You can imagine my surprise when I came to work one day and saw a Willys Aero Ace in the parking lot. “Who the heck owns that,” I thought to myself? It turns out, it belonged to Dimitri Lazaris, our recently hired boy wonder video guy.

When he answered “Yes” to my inquiry “Do you own the Willys?” we were off to the races and never looked back. I knew that aside from my mentor/guru Bobby Kimbrough, I had another “brother from a different mother” onsite.

We fluently traded stories of Hollywood, mid-century modern architecture and old cars. He also shared his parent’s obsession with collecting Hollywood props and artifacts.

A visit to his family homestead was amazing. In the living room hanging from the ceiling, was a paper mache’ replica of Fred McMurray’s Model T from the movie “The Absent Minded Professor.” They had acquired from the Movieland Wax Museum in Buena Park, CA and it joins an incredible collection of treasures and artifacts from Hollywood’s golden era.

When we went into the garage, I was greeted by not one but two dragsters! One complete and one a project in progress. There was wall-to-wall, petrol memorabilia and carefully curated racing artifacts from a bygone era of automobilia in all its glory. Dimitri recounts the fantastic fateful story of these two dragsters and how he and his Dad acquired them.

Let’s jump into our time machine and set the dials back to late 1958.

Racers Ronnie Scrima, Mort Smith, and Gene Adams were campaigning a dragster called the Engle Special. For a short period in early 1958 it rode on a homebuilt chassis built by Ronnie Scrima, but as soon as Chassis Research came out with their TE-440 (Top Eliminator,440 yards) they adopted the new underpinnings.

With a 371ci blown Oldsmobile V-8, the team quickly became the one to beat at Lion’s dragstrip in Long Beach and many other local southern California tracks.

Mort Smith piloted the rail, and Gene Adams was the man behind the moster Olds mill. The engine rocked a 6-71 blower with two-port Hilborn Injection that Stu Hilborn personally came out to the track to tune.

The team had a healthy rivalry with the famous Tommy Ivo and wins would be handed back and forth for Top Eliminator laurels.

In September of 1959, a 394ci Oldsmobile V-8 was installed hoping the extra cubic inches would take them across the finish line first, but that’s when the problems started. One night while making runs at Lion’s strip, Mort reported  that whenever he dropped the clutch the rail would violently turn to the right. He couldn’t keep it straight and would have to let off.

Then tragedy struck.

Mort decided to call it a night, but their friend Mickey Brown hopped in the rail to see if he could handle it himself. Mickey Brown drove the Quincy Automotive Olds powered dragster, and was the first man to go over 150mph on pump gas. He had been hanging around at the dragstrip that night with his wife and two-year old daughter just enjoying the event. Mort said he was the kind of guy who wasn’t too particular about safety constraints. He wouldn’t tighten his seat belts, or helmet and always kept his foot in it.

He jumped in and sure enough, when he dropped the clutch the rail lurched to turn to the right. He kept pedal down, hoping to correct it but ended up going off the track and putting the dragster on its’ side. It wasn’t a violent crash and the attitude of the bystanders were, “Let’s go grab Mickey.”

Famed racer Mickey Thompson was the first man to the scene. Brown had broken his neck and subsequently died on the way to the hospital.

He was 22 years old.

After that fateful night, Mort left the team and ended up renouncing racing for quite awhile. The chassis was sold to a tech at Lion’s named Wayne Talley and the engine went into the infamous Albertson Olds.

Passing through different hands, and ending up with a flathead engine, the Scrima-Adams-Smith dragster was renamed the “Antique Doll,” because no one could understand why anyone would continue to race an outdated short wheelbase rail with a flathead, when cars of the day had longer chassis’ and blown Hemis.

In 1974, Bill Lazaris, Dimitri’s Dad, bought the Antique Doll for $200 when he was just 17 years old. He preserved the tradition of the flathead engine, and continues to race it to this day.

Today, the senior Lazaris and Dimitri run the dragster at many nostalgia events, sporting a 304ci flathead V8 with mechanical Hillborn Fuel Injection. Dimitri says “The dragster will continue to race, because that’s what it is, a race car.”

The provenance of the dragster with it’s tragic backstory, requires careful stewardship and a sympathetic shepherd to preserve the rail for future generations of racing fans. In a story with a stroke of incredibly bad luck, the dragster was very lucky to have been found by Bill Lazaris in 1974.

With that in mind, the Lazaris’ thought it would be a shame to restore the car back to it’s guise as a Top Eliminator dragster from back in the day, it’s most famous iteration. 

When they found an identical NOS Chassis Research frame about five years ago, the family Lazaris stumbled upon an idea. They had an identical frame, why not build a replica of the dragster as it was outfitted in the late ’50s?

Dimitri explains further. “We’re  building the new dragster to be a recreation of the Scrima-Adams-Smith rail. Having a side-by-side comparison of how the dragster evolved over the years. Starting out as a down and dirty blown Top Eliminator dragster to a mini-flake panel paint job with a flathead.”

How they found a Chassis Research frame identical to the Scrima-Adams-Rail dragster is interesting.

The story on the matching chassis goes like this: Some kids got out of the Navy and decided to go drag racing. They bought the chassis from Scotty Fenn’s shop and got as far as kingpins. One of the friends bought the wrong size kingpins and forcefully tried to install them. They had a huge falling out and the chassis ended up collecting dust in one of the friends mothers garage.

The chassis was purchased  from the owner of Olympic Powder Coatings who had earlier acquired it. It had been in the NHRA museum in Pomona, California, because then director Steve Gibbs, wanted the chassis in their museum because Scotty Fenn did not like the NHRA. He did not believe there should be so many enforced rules. So having his chassis on display was a great way to show the legacy of the golden era of drag racing.

Dimitri continues, “We’ve got the dragster to the point of a roller with an engine. We have Romeo Palamides 12-spoke magnesium front wheels, a 394ci Olds with Weiand timing cover, and manifold, a Cyclone In-Out box, and an original Chassis Research steering wheel. We are continuing to source period-correct, or reproduced parts to complete a finished and running dragster. The rail, in it’s mocked up stage, has already been to shows, such as the “Nitro Reunion,” and will tag along whenever we show and race the Antique Doll.”

 

About the author

Dave Cruikshank

Dave Cruikshank is a lifelong car enthusiast and an Editor at Power Automedia. A zealous car geek since birth, he digs lead sleds, curvy fiberglass, kustoms and street rods. He currently owns a '95 Corvette, '76 Cadillac Seville, '99 LS1 Trans Am and big old Ford Van.
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