By Drew Hardin
Photograghy Courtesy Eric Rickman, Petersen Publishing Company Archive
Years before lights flashed from amber to green on a Christmas tree, drag races were started by flagmen. Typically members of a local car club, they were often chosen for their athletic aerial exploits, which added to the drama at the starting line. And drama there was at this meet.
In the mid-’50s, when organized drag racing was still in its infancy, the NHRA sent several of its officers across the country on a mission to spread its message of safe competition. Dubbed the Drag Safari (later the Safety Safari), these guys would pull their station wagon and trailer into a town; meet with representatives of car clubs, local government officials and law enforcement; and then set up a drag race nearby with the help of the area clubs.
Inside the trailer was everything needed to put on a race, from the timing equipment to a public-address system, with the trailer itself serving as race headquarters. Joining the Safari was Hot Rod photographer Eric Rickman, who would document the races and then mail his unexposed film back to Petersen Publishing Company headquarters in Los Angeles.
NHRA’s Drag Safari concept was a stroke of genius on the part of Wally Parks, who helmed both the sanctioning body and the magazine in those days. His Safari members would demonstrate the principles of safe racing to hundreds of hot rodders in person, while the magazine echoed the sentiment to thousands of enthusiasts eagerly reading its pages monthly.
Rickman caught this unidentified flagman in action in Orange, Massachusetts. It was the 11th stop of the ambitious 1955 Safari, which would culminate at the very first NHRA Nationals in Great Bend, Kansas. Leaving the line is John Sharrigan, driving a reshaped aircraft drop tank powered by a Mercury Flathead V8 nestled behind him. Sharrigan competed in the Dragster class and set the day’s top speed of 107.27 mph. As it turned out, another Flathead-powered Dragster entry, driven by Ralph Bannister, logged the exact same speed, setting up a match between the two for the class win and the day’s Top Eliminator trophy.
As the starter flag dropped, Bannister “charged out of the chute,” while Sharrigan “suffered a balky start,” the magazine reported. “This normally would give [Bannister] the race, unless the driver elected to turn back for a voluntary re-run—which he did.” Both cars “took off like rockets” on the restart, but Bannister “blew his rearend just 100 feet off the starting line,” giving Sharrigan the win. “Bannister, a cheerful loser, was awarded the coveted Sportsmanship trophy and won the Mobil ‘Fastest Gas’ trophy,” said the magazine. “In addition, Sharrigan relinquished his half-claim on the Top Speed trophy, so both teams went home more than victorious.”