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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

Hot Rod Nostalgia Spurs Creation of Exact Replicas

For 10 years, Pat Foster has rebuilt cars
in Wichita
that look, sound and perform
exactly like they did in the "good old days."
For 10 years, Pat Foster has rebuilt cars
in Wichita
that look, sound and perform
exactly like they did in the "good old days."

By Mike Berry
The Wichita Eagle

Pat Foster. Photo by Craig HackerPat Foster makes an adjustment on the steering mechanism of a 1960s-vintage fuel dragster. (Craig Hacker photo)

Pat Foster isn't living in the past, but he is working there and loving every minute of it.

Foster, who came to Wichita about 10 years ago, is a one-man automobile manufacturing plant.

But he doesn't build just any old cars. He restores, and in some cases recreates from the ground up, the classic front-engine fuel dragsters he once drove as a slightly wild kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California.

But he doesn't build just any old cars. He restores, and in some cases recreates from the ground up, the classic front-engine fuel dragsters he once drove as a slightly wild kid growing up in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California.

"There's quite a nostalgia craze in the country but not a lot of 'spot-on' (100 percent accurate) recreations of these kind of cars," Foster said.

That is his goal: rebuilding cars that look, sound and perform exactly like they did back in the "good old days."

"My interest (is) in creating a place to have the work done by someone that was there, during that era, both as a builder and participant," he explained.

Foster, 61, originally a race car chassis builder, was the third driver to push a funny car through the 6-second barrier, with a 5.89-second run. His top speed in a quarter-mile was 263 mph, shortly before his driving career ended in 1980 with a life-threatening crash of one of the first-ever rear-engine dragsters.

Foster knows not many racing fans can afford his brand of nostalgia. A car that cost $1,300 to build in the late '60s will probably end up setting its new owner back as much as $50,000, Foster said.

He charges $60 an hour, which includes researching, measuring every dimension and angle and then hand-fabricating out-of-production parts to build a particular dragster. Materials are extra.

Foster still has many contacts in drag racing and regularly communicates over the Internet with both old-timers and younger fans who appreciate the early dragsters.

He believes he has found a niche market for his highly specialized skills. He figures he can make a decent living even if he builds only two or three cars a year.

Foster was head of fabrication for Nissan's exotic sports car racing program in California, building cars that cost $1.6 million each, when his longtime friend, Tom Hanna, contacted him in the early 1990s. Hanna, a legendary builder of race car bodies, was living in Wichita and was looking for help to produce his dream, the world's fastest street-drivable sports car.

Foster moved here to work on that project, now in the clay mock-up stage in Hanna's shop. But he couldn't resist a return to his drag racing roots when the opportunity presented itself.

Foster has two dragsters in the works for clients at his one-man shop, Foster Pro-Fab, at 127th East and Harry. One is the restoration of the Creitz & Donovan fuel dragster driven by Steve Carbone. Carbone and Bob Creitz commissioned him to restore the chassis, with Hanna reworking the body.

The other car is a duplicate of the Beebe & Mulligan fuel dragster that tragically crashed at the 1969 National Hot Rod Association Nationals in Indianapolis, claiming the life of driver John Mulligan. "This is going to be the green car. A few people knew it as the 'Fighting Irish' car," said Foster, looking over the low-slung chassis with the 392-cubic-inch Chrysler hemi engine block stuffed between the frame rails.

Dave West, 54, a retired California sourdough bakery owner who once raced a less powerful fuel dragster, decided to have Foster recreate the Beebe & Mulligan car at Hanna's suggestion. "This car was kind of the pinnacle of the whole thing," said West, who can't wait to fire up the ear-drum-rattling engine.

"I'm pretty pumped up," West said. "People our age -- it's now or never. If you're going to do something like this, you'd better do it now before you run out of time," he said.

Foster arranged for Tim Beebe, the original engine builder, to build the engine for the replica car, and Hanna is teaching him the finer points of forming custom aluminum body panels for the machine. "I'm finally learning how to be a 'tin man,' " grins Foster, a muscular, bearded fellow who still wears his mostly gray hair in a '60s-style ponytail.

Ironically, Foster isn't a big fan of nostalgia racing. That's because modern safety considerations and speed equipment developments make those cars look and sound differently than the originals. And museum-quality exact replicas end up as static display cars that can't be raced, he explained.

Foster hopes to split the difference. He wants West to experience a sort of virtual reality snapshot of what it was like to bring the Beebe & Mulligan dragster to the line for a run in the late 1960s.

"We want to push the car to fire the motor, blip the throttle, pull in to stage with the motor 'cackling' and smoke the tires, maybe run it 700 feet or so," Foster said. "The car was capable of 235 mph, but we will probably only run it 180 or so."

"If I'm going to do this car, I'm going to do it right," Foster said. "I want John (Mulligan) to look down and go: 'Patty, that's right on. That's my hot rod.' "

"I think there is a market for what Pat's doing, and I think he's going to open the door for a lot of people who have been sitting on the fence thinking about doing this," West said.

Mike Berry writes about Kansas people, places and events. Reach him at (316) 628-4899 or mberry@wichitaeagle.com.

The Wichita Eagle-Beacon Publishing Co. Reprinted with permission.

 

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