Mongoose Journals: From Doorslammers to Dragsters

June 22nd, 2010

By Tom McEwen

Cutting-edge tech when the Mongoose gets his paws on 'em.

Route 66 sees more action than the dragstrip in this wacky Mongoose adventure.

Hauling my D/Gas ’57 Chevy all the way from California to Oklahoma City for the ’57 NHRA Nationals was quite an adventure for me and my three friends. The race was exciting, but it was nothing compared to our journey home.

For the ’57 to make D/Gas class weight, we stacked a couple of hundred pounds of barbell weights in the trunk. The car raced, as was the hot set-up of the time, with its nose in the air. Prior to the trip home, we relocated the weights to the front floorboards, so it would tow easier, hitched it up to Jim Yander’s Chevy and headed west on Route 66.

I was asleep in the front seat of the ’57. We were heading up the grade just east of Albuquerque when Jim started to pass another vehicle. The race car swung wide, tearing loose from the tow bar with its locked rear end chattering. Instantly wide awake, I grabbed the steering wheel and yanked myself up just in time to see the race car pulling alongside the tow car. The gasser plowed into the center divider, careened across two lanes of traffic …

went off the side of the road, and slammed onto its roof. The impact sent the barbell weights blasting over my head into the rear seat, smashing out the windows. I had to be pried from the wreck, miraculously escaping injury. I remember Yanders, Duke, Bravender, and I standing in the cold New Mexico night, all pretty much in shock, staring at my demolished ’57. It made the rest of the trip home on a trailer.

The Mongoose takes on dry lakes racing

While the ’57 was being repaired, I bought a used ’56 Chevy and modified the stock V-8 with ’57 Corvette engine parts. Its nickname was “Chantilly Lace,” because of a real bad lime green paint job. I got mag wheels for it (my first set). Running D/Gas, I raced it throughout 1958, including the 1/2-mile drags at Riverside. During this period, I even took a crack at dry lakes racing. My buddy Yanders bought a new ’58 Chevy Impala, equipped with a tri-power 348. The performance wasn’t up to our expectations until we installed Chevy’s optional solid lifter cam and rigged up a straight linkage for the carbs, so they all opened at the same time when you hit the throttle. On May 18, 1958, we took turns driving down the 1.3-mile El Mirage dry lakes course. Competing in the Gas Coupe and Sedan class, we ran 129.49 and won the class trophy for our efforts. I know the date and speed because Jim has the trophy on his mantel. He eventually became a successful real estate developer in Nevada and still races, competing in NHRA’s Division 7 Pro Gas wars.

In 1959, I partnered up with Bud Rasner and Joe Reath on a ‘48 Fiat Topolino coupe, built by Itow’s Automotive. Gary Slusser threw in with us, supplying the first engine, a small-inch early Chrysler Hemi. Eventually, Gary dropped out of the deal, taking his engine with him. I purchased the injected Chrysler Hemi out of Frank Cannon’s gold ’55 T-Bird, which had been a Hot Rod magazine cover car. Frank was one of early drag racing’s big money racers. He and Art Chrisman ran a series of highly successful Chrisman and Cannon “Hustler” fuel dragsters. Their stuff was always immaculately constructed (and maintained). They set the standard for future racers. After his partnership with Art, Cannon successfully campaigned the “Hustler” cars on his own. Searching for more speed, I sold the injected engine, and we installed a blown Chrysler out of Joe Reath and Glenn Stokey’s very competitive A/Gas dragster.

Soaked shop rags lead to a track record

Late in 1959, while racing the Fiat at Lions, the LaSalle transmission lost second gear. Bud and I didn’t want to call it quits for the night, but our options were pretty limited. I decided to make a high gear-only run. At the time, nobody had enough power to run, what was in effect, direct drive, but that’s what we planned to attempt. We pumped up the M&H slicks full of air, soaked a bunch of shop rags with water, and just before I got to the line, Rasner wiped down the slicks with the wet rags. In hindsight, this turned out to be the concept for the current water burnout. The little coupe flew. I ran 140 mph, setting a Lions track record—my first.

‘An exploding hand grenade’

I thought we were really on to something here, so we repeated the process. The resulting run was less successful, to say the least! I was blasting down the strip and a huge ball of fire erupted in front of me. My first thoughts were, a ship had exploded in the Long Beach Harbor, but suddenly, chunks of metal began tearing through the interior of the coupe like an exploding hand grenade. The cast aluminum flywheel had disintegrated and the resulting damage damn near cut the car in half. No exaggeration, there were holes, rips and gouges everywhere: Chassis, body, roll bar, everywhere, except in me. We ran the cast aluminum flywheels to cut down on weight. Nobody thought there was such a potential for disaster spinning just inches from our legs.

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