By Bud De Boer
It had been over 35 years since he made his last pass in a fuel altered vehicle and to the Chicago native, it seemed like only yesterday. It was quarter mile career that lasted only 16 years, from 1952 to 1968, but oh, what a mark he left on a class of cars known for their powerful motors, short wheelbases, and evil handling characteristics. They were like riding a bucking bronco on nitro.
|Front wheels up, rears smokin', it was like riding a buckin' bronco on nitro.|
The Early Years… Born in 1932, Gabby’s early life stomping grounds included neighborhoods in Chicago and Evergreen Park . He graduated from Calumet High School in the late 1940s. With drag strips almost non-existent during that time period, like many youths of his day, Bleeker turned to street racing to satisfy his “need for speed.” Life in the fast lane included the Ford Motor company’s parking lot at 84th and Cicero , as well as portions of Western Avenue . and 85th Street . Chums included Bud Roche and Don Mattison (of Guzzler fame) as well as the legendary Chris Karamesines.
|Late 1950s... Bleeker takes on John Forska in a "best of 3" at Minnesota Dragway.|
The 1950s… Bleeker raced two cars during his 16-year stint in the sport. First, there was the 1936 Ford two-window coupe, which saw action as a gas altered coupe at Half Day, Illinois during 1952. Four years later in 1956, Gabby came across a 1938 Austin Bantam body in a junkyard north of Chicago . He looked, liked what he saw, and the rest is history. Bleeker’s name came into national attention at the 1959 NHRA Nationals in Detroit , Michigan . Though he had taken wins at two other major drag events earlier that year, the World Series in Cordova, Illinois and the Olympics of Drag Racing in Union Grove, Wisconsin, he had never visited the winner’s circle at a major hot rod association event.
But things would all change over Labor Day weekend in 1959. A week before the event, Chris Karamesines loaned him a carbureted 462-inch Olds engine to try in Detroit . Entries into the nine-car A/A Altered category included the likes of Ratican-Jackson-Stearns and Walt’s Puffer Too. Though he was the only un-blown car in the group, Bleeker prevailed despite the odds, beating Walt’s Puffer Too for the class title.
|Early 1960s... Longer car, new paint scheme, a switch from Olds to Chrysler. |
The 1960s… In the early part of this decade, a blown Chrysler with a tall Hilborn 4-port injection became a mainstay in the fuel altered coupe category. Whether it was on the weekly match race circuit, or in an AHRA/NHRA event, the win/loss record for the Ford Bantam coupe was something to behold. Bleeker and company “took no prisoners.”
However, aside from the seriousness of competition during those days, there were stories that surfaced regarding the lighter side of the sport. Like the time at U.S. 30 in Gary , Indiana when he saw “The Greek” (Chris Karamesines) carefully studying his car. Knowing well the great driver he was, Gabby asked him if he “wanted to take a lap in it” and Chris replied with a “sure.” The light went green; “Greek” lit the tires, and for the next 1320 feet was all over the place, but made it though the traps OK. When asked, “How was the ride,” Karamesines replied to Bleeker, “You’ve got to be nuts to drive something like that.”
There was another tale that surfaced from those days about the time Bleeker match raced Jack Ditmars' Lil' Screamer at an eighth mile facility in Kahoka , Missouri . He couldn’t’ stop his car in time and ran off the end of the track into a farmer’s field. Gabby started to get out of the coupe, only to be greeted by a group of pigs oinking like crazy. Standing on the rear tire, he looked around to see what had pissed them off, thinking maybe he had made “ground pork” out of one of their pals. Fortunately not, but at some of the tracks during those early years of the sport, you had to expect the unexpected.
|Indy 1968... Bleeker defeats "Wild Willie" Borsch (far lane) to take AA/FA class honors with an 8.34-178 mph clocking. |
The ‘60s saw two major association wins for the Windy City based fuel altered driver. The first one came during the 1961 AHRA Nationals held at Green Valley Raceway in Smithfield , Texas , where Bleeker not only won the A/Fuel Altered class but went on to take Middle Eliminator honors as well. His other one was during the 1968 NHRA U.S. Nationals at Indy where he defeated “Wild Willie” Borsch for AA/Fuel Altered class honors at 8.34-178 mph.
|Two weeks after Indy, Gabby decides to call it quits. Here he makes his final run at Rockford Dragway.|
The Final Run… Bleeker drove his final race two weeks after Indy at Rockford Dragway in Byron , Illinois . He was doing a handicap match race with Palmer Lazarus, who raced a 1956 Chevy B/GS vehicle. Lazarus left first, as Bleeker waited for the green light to come on in his lane. When it did, he took off in hot pursuit, passing Lazarus sideways in the lights at 201 mph. He didn’t think he was out of shape at the time, but either way, he decided right then and there that he wanted to quit. He’d had his fun and it was time to move onto other things in life.
Today… Bleeker, who retired nine years ago after 42 years as cement finisher, will soon celebrate 50 years as a card carrying member of the local mason’s union. He still enjoys attending races from time to time at nearby Route 66 Raceway in Joliet , Illinois . When not doing that, he sometimes likes to just “get away from it all” by traveling to his cabin in northern Wisconsin for a spell.
Closing Thoughts… As one of the originators of the fuel altered class, we have a lot to thank Gabby Bleeker for. In the early days of nitro burning vehicles, he was part of a group of drivers who took their cars “right to the edge of the envelope.” Thanks, Gabby, for giving us 16 years of your time. Hopefully these writings will help re-live those days once again.
Photos by Slatts, Ron Johnson, and Bud De Boer