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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

The First Israeli Rocket

By Jim Hill

Israeli Rocket 1963 -- blown Oldsmobile. Photo thanks to Jim Hill
Israeli Rocket 1963 -- blown Oldsmobile. Photo thanks to Jim Hill

There was an infamous "Israeli Rocket" rear engine Top Gas dragster long before it became a nickname for the noted driver, Leroy "Israeli Rocket" Goldstein. The car raced quite often at Palm Beach International Raceway, the same track now known as Moroso Motorsports Park.

I'm currently working on a feature story on the "Israeli Rocket," outlining its amazing performances, eerily advanced design features, and exceptionally stable handling... long before Garlits debuted the his back-motor, front-driver car that forever changed the look of Top Fuel in 1971. I have included action photos of the car, first with a 6-71 blown Oldsmobile in '63 and with a wedge "B" block Dodge in 64. Both were taken at Masters Field, Miami, Florida.

When first completed (1963) the car ran the blown Oldsmobile on gasoline, running high eight-second ETs at 170+ mph. Later the team switched to a blown Dodge "B" wedge 426. The 426 Dodge motor had one of the unusual Orner injectors (dubbed: "The Injector with A Brain" by its inventor, Dr. Pete Orner, of Ohio). The car ran very well with that set-up instead of the more conventional four-hole Hilborn the Olds used.

With the 6-71 supercharged Dodge "B" the guys ran as low as 8.50s at high 170s, very respectable gas times for '64, especially when the marginal traction, high-humidity, and typically poor "air" of South Florida tracks is considered.

The 'Rocket had stuff like rack and pinion steering, disc aircraft front wheels, spherical rod ends, and much more. And oh yes, these guys had already discovered the "magic" in slowing the steering ratio to eliminate the oversteer that earned most early RE cars their reputation as being "evil handling."

I personally saw this car make many, many runs, and every one was "straight arrow," with not a hint of squirrelly antics, although it had a fairly short wheelbase!

Israeli Rocket 1964 -- Dodge 'B' powered with the Orner injector. Photo thanks to Jim Hill
Israeli Rocket 1964 -- Dodge 'B' powered with the Orner injector.
Photo thanks to Jim Hill

I've been in contact with the brother of one of the original four partners who built and raced the car, John O'Brien. John's brother Tom was one of the Cohen - Shapiro - O'Brien - Sonnenblick partnership from Miami. Paul Shapiro (now deceased) drove. 

Ironically, the man who brought the RE concept to the forefront, Don Garlits, today has the restored version of this car on display in his Museum of Drag Racing in Ocala, Florida. It would be an inaccurate stretch to say this single car influenced Garlits' development and perfection of the RE dragster. Garlits' car -- in typical Big Daddy fashion was a collage of ideas Garlits incorporated into his answer for removing drivers from harm's way.

An amazing partnership collaboration produced the Israeli Rocket.

Howard Cohen was a longtime drag racer with a highly creative, inventive mind. His cars were very fast and very competitive in any class he raced. He loved Oldsmobile engines, especially blown Olds motors, and was a compatriot and confidant of another young racer from Tampa, Donald Garlits. 

Cohen was the "master thinker" for this project. He decided on the back-motor location for two reasons. As a means of compensating for the generally sorry track conditions of the WW-2 airport runway drag strips that most Florida tracks used during this period and to produce a lower and more aero-efficient shape. Driver Paul Shapiro assumed a radical "lay-down" position and the car was very low for its day.

Paul Shapiro and Mike Sonnenblick were both involved in the aircraft industry in Miami, a major East Coast aircraft maintenance/overhaul base. This car had loads of unique features, all inspired by the aircraft industry in which three of the partners were involved and implemented through hot rodder's backyard ingenuity.

Tom O'Brien was a long time employee of Eastern Elevator Service and a master installer/repairman of electric "lifts."

The partners -- four Jews and an Irish Catholic -- raced not for financial success, but purely for recreational purposes. Due to commitments, they stayed in the state of Florida almost exclusively. They did manage to nail down a Standard 1320 Top 10 List spot (#6) on the Top Gas list and won numerous Top Gas Eliminator titles in the Southeast, mostly Florida. 

They traveled little, as their jobs/businesses prevented their getting to "big meets" where the bizarre creation could receive more exposure in the drag papers. Understand that Miami racers faced a six-hour tow just to exit the State of Florida, so any out of state race was a major journey! Despite their commitments, these "hobby" racers managed to find time to design, construct, and race a unique and fairly successful "mongrel-oddball" race car in an era where such forward thinking was usually labeled "dangerous heresy."

These guys and their off-the-wall "Israeli Rocket" (the cowl of which featured an Irish shamrock with a Star of David!) were great examples of what the true "spirit" of drag racing really was.

Jim Hill

 

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