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Drag Racing Story of the Day!

The EARLIEST Rear Engine Dragsters

By Joel Naprstek

Rear engine dragsters were numerous in the early years of the sport all across the nation, winning on the local level and even at regional meets. They were arguably "campaigned" and successful in that they were repeat winners in their small ponds and regions.

Two very well known rear engine cars come to mind immediately that pre date the Colorado-based car Pete wrote about and Garlits' more famous car. These are the chain drive Sidewinder series of cars built by Chuck Jones from California and the Art Arfons Green Monster aircraft engine cars out of Ohio. Both cars may have been very unorthodox, but certainly were nationally known, successful, and rear engined. Both cars predate the Kaiser Bros., Bernie Schacker, Duane Ong, and Don Garlits modern era rear engine cars by a decade.

These cars along with a number of other rear engine dragsters may not have handled as well, nor been as revolutionary in terms of their effect on the direction dragster construction took, but they certainly were ahead of the 1970 cars.

I'd agree that the Kaiser car was most likely the first big step in the making of the modern era rear engine dragster.

Speed Sport Roadster. Magazine clip courtesy of Joel Naprstek
Speed Sport Roadster. Magazine clip courtesy of Joel Naprstek

Here's a very successful rear engine car that was from the late fifties and at the dawn of the sixties. The Sidewinder and the Green Monster were gas cars but the Speed Sport roadster was a fuel car. I dare say the most successful rear engine, national caliber car on fuel up until the 1970 revolution.

Jones-Mailliard Sidewinder. Magazine clip courtesy of Joel Naprstek
Jones-Mailliard Sidewinder. Magazine clip courtesy of Joel Naprstek

The Sidewinders were winners on the West Coast and throughout the Southwest in the late fifties. They won class at the '59 Detroit NHRA nationals and made it to the semifinals for Top Eliminator that year as well. Here is a shot of the famous Sidewinder. I found it in a short lived, long dead car magazine, no photo credit given. I loved the first two Sidewinder cars. There were about three Sidewinders from these California racers. There were a few other chain drive cars in the early years, too. One of the early Sidewinder cars came to the East Coast around '61-62 and ran as a white car called NASTY out of the Delaware-Maryland area. It was converted to a conventional drive (non-chain) rear engine setup. Who knows, it may still be in the area sitting someplace?

Arfons Bros. Green Monster. Magazine clip courtesy of Joel Naprstek
Arfons Bros. Green Monster. Magazine clip courtesy of Joel Naprstek

The Green Monster cars were never really competitive beyond being top speed contenders but they were at the majority of the NHRA national meets in the late fifties putting them in the "nationally campaigned" category. This car was well known, as were the many others they ran. This Art Arfons - Arfons Bros. Green Monster was the one I'd say was the most successful though. It's pictured here at the '59 NHRA Nationals at Detroit. From a picture, uncredited, in the defunct Car Speed & Style, 7/60.

The Sidewinder photo shows the chain, which is cool, and the Speed Sport photo shows how small the car was in relation to the guy standing in it. I also think the graininess adds to the historic/ancient feel.

The Sidewinders and the Green Monster were competitive and lasted for more than a year each. The Sidewinders were campaigned as far as their owner could afford and competitive at the highest levels of gas dragster racing in their day. The Green Monsters were legit racers essentially until NHRA decided to outlaw aircraft engines and Arfons was bitten by the LSR/jet dragster bug. True, they were paid to make exhibition passes across the country but so were racers like Gary Cagle, Chris Karamesines, the Speed Sport roadster, Chrisman, Garlits, and many others.

The Speed Sport car in it's heyday was a legitimate contender/ competitor for Top Eliminator as drag racing was run in those days but not so in the post sixties era. Does that disqualify it? It's (Speed Sport roadster) competition was not really other modified roadsters but the hottest of the fuel dragsters and competition coupes of the day. As you'll recall the comp coupes and modified roadsters ran the dragsters for TE honors in those days. I believe the SS roadster is a legitimate fit into the discussion.

I guess what needs to be determined is what is the criteria for calling a car "successful". Is it winning, lasting more than a year, being able to make repeated passes under full power without crashing, influencing others to copy it's design on a wide basis, beating Garlits to the punch, looking like modern T/F cars, being a dragster, coming after the slingshot years, or maybe encompassing most of the aforementioned?

If the scope of the discussion is a modern era beginning with the 1970s then my two cents has no bearing on it. If we're talking about the entire history of drag racing then I think I have a legitimate point with the cars I've mentioned.

Joel Naprstek
RACE CAR ART

 

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