In recent years, new clubs and old clubs have been forming all over the country. New clubs and the resurgence of old clubs have been inspiring.
If we could only turn back the clock.
Imagine the year is 1957, you’re in high school, but your thoughts are across town at the air strip. You’re wondering who’s car is the latest souped-up hot rod. Doo-Wop, Rockabilly, and early Rock & Roll are being played on every A.M. radio station from coast to coast. This describes for some of us, how it was in the 50’s and 60’s.
One such club was from Waltham, MA. We were established in 1957 by Bill Chaplis and Fred Hire, two high school kids who formed a group, but didn’t even own a car. What they had was enthusiasm and a big heart. Soon afterwards they had a name, “Push Rods”!!! In time they would find a drag machine. It was a model “A” roadster, purchased from Clint Kirkness. The body was channeled over a modified frame, 1” off the ground. The motor was a 1956 Buick nail head set back 20% carrying six Stromberg 97’s. From the start it was rebuilding project and good for club moral. At this time, Push-Rod member Art Coye contacted Bob Kelsch of Kirkness Racing to see if he’d be interested in continuing with the roadster. Shortly afterwards Kirkness retired, Kelsch brought along his ignition system and other assorted (speed) items. A club meeting in Wayne Murray’s mother’s living room made it official…Bob Kelsch was now a Push-Rod.
Once the motor mechanics were understood, it became time to learn how to drive it. Three drivers were chosen… Art Coye, Wayne Murray, and Fuzza Robillard. With plaques purchased from Stylized Emblem Co. located in Los Angeles, Ca., Club members took photos and were ready to roll. The roll was, “drag racing” and bad news, a real hoodlum sport. This negative image had to be cleaned up. The Push Rods did their part assisting drives who had broken down along the road sides. Cards were given to these divers with the club name upon it. They were asked to call their local newspaper and tell them hot rod hoodlums helped out. This was mostly a street thing, but even at the strip the word drag racing was given a new name… “acceleration trials.” No, No officer, I was just accelerating…DAAAA!!
For the next few years, the club fine tuned their skills racing on local New England Strips, Sanford, ME, Orange, MA, Charlestown R.I., Connecticut Dragway, and (later) Rt. 2. In early 1960, the club felt secure enough to venture out of New England and be competitive. Scheduled out of New England racing would be held at York, PA., Lebanon Valley, N.Y., Montgomery, NY, Atco, NJ, Vineland, NJ, Cordova, and IL, and Detroit, MI.
On July 4th 1960, the club set a “new national record” in the B/MR class. It was the “Divisional Championship” held at the Atco, NJ strip. Wayne Murray was the driver that day with a time of 12.13 at 119mph. This was great for the club but short lived. In those day records were broken every weekend. On this particular weekend three hours later, Dick Kalivoda broke the Push Rod record at the Pacific Raceway in Seattle, WA with a 120mph run. So we held the record for three hours, -- that’s the way it was back then. Several weeks later at the A.H.R.A. “World Series of Drag Racing” in Cordova, IL, the club was top in its class. This was the club’s first trip to Cordova. Wayne Murray, Mike Citro, and Bob Kelsch represented the Push-Rods at the “Dust Bowl Drags”. On that particular weekend, as Kelsch tells it,”We followed Murry Kidder as we left the 99 Racing Team shop in Watertown, MA, that is until our first accident. We were on the NY Thruway when something upset the trailer. We wound up in the median with a broken trailer. After some negotiations with a tow truck driver, we were able to get to a weld shop for repair. The following day we were on our way. After a sleep-over in Ohio we had our second accident in Joliet, IL. We were being passed on the right by someone who was more interested in looking at the race car than the fact that we were making a right turn. Art Coye’s car, which we were using as a tow car, took a hard hit on the passenger side doorpost. About all you can say is that it still ran. It sure looked a mess, and only one door worked, but we continued on. We arrived at the Cordova race track around midnight. I slept on the ground (not sure where Wanye and Mike ended up ) and awoke sunk in the dust. What a mess!! But we made it!!“
Into The 60's
At this point we were a day behind schedule. The other teams were getting in time trials while we were still going through inspection. At dinnertime we were finally ready to go. The dust was awful! We asked the track officials if we would use the track to start the car. We rebuilt the engine before we left the shop. I didn't want to start it in all that dust. Since it was dinnertime, we were allowed free access to the strip. Our good friend Dick Pratt, announcer at Sanford Maine, was guest announcer at the Cordova race track. When he saw the "sorry" looking tow car, he introduced us with an overblown story of all the bad luck we had on the way out here to race. The hard luck story stuck with us for the entire event. Due to Dick Pratt's stories, we received some very enthusiastic cheers. We had two serious competitors. One race team from Texas, and the other was Cal-Equip from California. Both were running nitro. Up to that point I had never turned a car for intro but knew if we were to have a chance, that would have to be done. Saturday we switched to alcohol. The car ran well although we had some fuel leaks that were of concern to me. Sunday was show time, and we had to go to nitro if we wanted any chance to win. By Sunday afternoon there were three cars left in B/MR. We drew them by round. Cal-Equip and Texas team went against each other. I don't recall who won. In the process of winning, however, they blew up and were not able to make the call for the final round. We stated with the nitro plan and made a good solo show of the final round. By winning the class we brought home money. This was the incentive to return next year, 1961.“ The following weekend on Labor Day week, (1960) the Push Rods were at the Detroit N.H.R.A. National Championship Drag Races. The Push Rods didn't win but what memories. Dick Kalivoda was runner-up to Jess Van Deventer. As the season was winding down preparations were being made for the following season. Over the winter months, the Push Rods began fabricating a rear engine dragster. The dragster was so heavy it had to be scrapped. Soon the 1961 racing season was under way. The Push Rods found themselves thinking of that long trip back to Cordova... As local racing continued, preparations were being made for the second trip. Fred Hire, Art Coye, Pete Hamilton, Dan Sheeho, and John Campanella would make the second trip. Two years of racing at the A.H.R.A., in Cordova, IL found good competition from the west coast. During the eliminations trials (1961), the Push Rods made it to the finals again. As the story is told, the Push Rods had best times with very consistent runs leading into the finals. Bad luck would spoil the fun though, during a gear shift the fuel shut-off switch was accidently hit. West Coast rival Jess Van Deventer went on to win the class. The Push Rods settled for second place but, most importantly, had fun. Back in New England the Push Rods were up against Murry Kidder and the first 99 Racing Team. It was the finals for "Top Eliminator" at the Charlestown Dragway in R.I. The 99 team was having a few problems, oil leaks and lost compression from several cylinders. It didn't look good. They knew it, and according to the club, made a request that we not make the final run. (Fats Domino tells it best,"Ain't that a shame!"). Naturally, the Push Rods said,”No-way, we’re here to race... see you at the starting line.” So the 99 team, with their blown, injected Hemi, blew smoke for a ¼ mile. Burning oil, ah, such a sweet smell, from the other lane. The Push Rods beat the 99 Racing Team in the "Little Big Go" for Top Eliminator. So as it turned out, the 1961 racing season was a good one for the Push Rods. Incidentally, this is the same year that Bob Kelsch started building his own A/MR. The project was started in Murry Kidder's shop in Watertown, MA. Unable to complete the car on his own, he added his parts with those of John Campanella, Jo, and Paul McGonagle. These guys, together, formed the second 99 Racing Team. One other thing, "Hot-Rod Hoodlum", Bob Kelsch graduated from Wentworth in 1964. He now races a 1969 Chevy Camaro with his son. A 500 cu. in. (in the 10's) B/B with all the goodies wins locally and is competitive nationally. For info visit: www.kelschracing.com
70's and 80's
In 1962, the club debated their new winter project. A newly purchased Scotty Finn chassis sat the clubs new rear engine dragster. It was cutting edge technology for its time. A 1958 Buick 390 cu. in. (nail head) was placed in the new Finn frame. The added blower was a centrifugal unit from an Allison 1700-cube airplane engine and boost varied with speed. An RR-800 Isky cam provided the heart beat. The dragster never quite lived up to its potential... remaining in the experimental stage. Not long afterwards it was back to front engine dragsters. Thinking back, the Push Rods probably had one of the first rear engine dragsters in the East, and were one of the few in the country. In 1970, eight years later Don Gartlis introduced "Swamp Thirteen"... his first real engine dragster. The Push Rods continued to race through the mid sixties with lots of local success. By the late 60's, the Push Rods' racing days were nearing a sad end. Guys were getting older and losing interest, others were moving on to bigger and better things, and others were getting married. Getting married really put an end to racing. Add all this in with emission, pricey gas, Doo-Wop and Rock-N-Roll giving way to the British invasion, and you've just about killed everything but the memories. Lots of clubs were disbanded for the same reasons. The brakes on drag racing were slowly being applied, even the air strips were discontinuing the racing, perhaps from fear of being sued. Through the 70's, 80's, and early 90's the club was (racing) inactive. A few members kept in touch through the years just to keep the spirit alive. In the last 10-15 years, there has been considerable interest in the rod and custom hobby. It's been growing ever since, and the old timers love it. Nostalgia drag racing is popping up all over the country. The plastic industry is applying its trade very nicely. The N.S.R.A. Eastern Divisional Show held at York, PA during the early 80's brought in 2500 vehicles. Today that number is easily over 5000. The past summer, a group of guys started the Syracuse Nationals, expecting 1500 vehicles, they registered 4300. This year, they have a give-away car... a 1932 3/w Hi-Boy. New and old clubs have been inspirational, and the spirit is alive and well. Several years ago a few letters were written and several phone calls were made looking for lost Push Rods members. Before you knew it, the Push Rods were back in gear. Members, old and new, were coming to scheduled meetings in Massachusetts from PA, NY, NH, and ME wearing the club jackets. Jack Dempsey phones in from Empire, MI during one meeting to wish us well. Today the club has a mailing list of 37 members, 10 of which are new with a total of 15 active. The clubs philosophy is focused on safe driving and building safe "Hot Rods" and naturally good old memories.
Past 20 Years
A few years back, the club had its 40th reunion. The reunion has turned out to be an annual event (racers, hot-rod dinner) and is held at the Hudson Elks, in Hudson, MA. The reunion is on the first weekend after Labor Day, in the late afternoon/early evening. It is before, but on the same weekend as, the annual "Old Timers" hot rod and custom show put on by the Ty-Rods of MA. At the 41st reunion during the Hot Rod and Custom Show, two original members who haven't seen each other in over thirty-five years showed up. Were they surprised! Wayne Murray from Syracuse, NY, driver at the Atco, NJ Dragway (national record), and Pete Hamilton from (at the time Norcross, GA) Key, FL... Pete went on to do a little circle track after the Cordova years. He had some big wins in 1970 with Richard Petty Team, winning the "Daytona 500" and "Taladaga". Not bad for a drag racing guy. Incidentally, the word is Pete will be around for this year's reunion. On the 42nd reunion, member Dave Burns blessed us with new Push Rod hats from his business, and his lines of Push Rod shirts are great. Looking back, I guess you'd say the Push Rods of Waltham, MA had a good ride. I'd have to say not shabby for a bunch of high school kids. Incidentally, the club is still looking for original member Rob McDonald, supposedly on the left coast. If anyone knows the whereabouts of any original Push Rodders, please contact Fred Hire @ 1-978-562-5589. In ending I hope this story inspires other clubs to record some of their history and try to get back together. But make it simple. The Push Rods meet informally with no dues and a very basic format, eat, drink, and be merry.