By Drew Hardin
Best Seats in the House
Given the lengthy schedule of events put on by the NHRA today, it’s hard to imagine a time when the drag-racing sanctioning body had just one national event on its calendar: The National Championships—or “The Big Go,” as Hot Rod magazine liked to call it. So when a second national meet was added in 1961, it was a very big deal.
That explains why some 40,000 spectators turned out at the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona to watch the very first Winternationals—the “Big Go West”—held over a three-day weekend in February.
“Car club jackets from Texas, Oklahoma, Denver, Seattle, Montana, Ontario, Detroit, etc. were everywhere to be seen,” wrote LeRoi “Tex” Smith in the May 1961 Hot Rod.
At that time, the dragstrip served double-duty as the straightaway for a road course, both of which were laid out within the Fairgrounds’ huge parking lot. In fact, not much separated the event’s spectators from the drag action—just a few rows of empty parking spaces and a line of hay bales. So when Petersen Publishing’s Ralph Poole turned his camera away from the strip to capture the full-to-overflowing parking lot, he caught these two young guys soaking in the racing atmosphere from the roof of their rustic camper in what was likely a front-row seat.
Jack Chrisman won the inaugural Winternationals Top Eliminator trophy, driving the twin-engine Howard Cam Special in the final against an up-and-comer so unknown to the magazine’s staffers that they misspelled his last name as “McKewen.” Tom McEwen, of course, would go on to fame as “The Mongoose,” match-racing Don “The Snake” Prudhomme for years.