SEMA News - December 2010
By Drew Hardin
Photo Courtesy Source Interlink Media Archives
It was no accident that the NHRA brought the U.S. Nationals to Detroit in 1959. The Big Three were engaged in a growing horsepower war, and hot rodders were enjoying the spoils of that war, turning Detroit’s big-inch, multi-carbed mills into quarter-mile terrors. Wally Parks, who at the time was both editor of Hot Rod magazine and president of the NHRA, felt that there would be no better way to demonstrate the popularity of drag racing to the members of the Motown establishment than to have this national meet in their backyard.
The race drew 80,000 people to Detroit Dragway, including, as Parks had hoped, scores of GM, Ford and Chrysler executives. “Never before had so much high-level attention been focused on the drags,” Parks wrote. “Top leaders in the auto industry stood shaking their heads, some stating, ‘I’d never have believed it if I hadn’t seen it!’ Not only impressed by types and performance of the vehicles, and the obvious investment in time and money, they were even more amazed at the hardworking, dedicated enthusiasm of the contestants.”
The Nationals returned to Detroit in 1960 to cement the image of this burgeoning performance market in the minds of the automakers. In fact, many automotive historians believe the seeds for the entire musclecar movement were planted during the two years the NHRA staged its Nationals in Detroit.
Among the most popular racing classes—and certainly the ones the OEs could relate to most—were the Stock racers, cars that literally embodied the “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” ethic.
Staging the 1960 Stock Eliminator run-off was “perhaps one of the most impressive sights ever seen at a Nationals,” said Hot Rod in its December 1960 coverage of the event. “A thrill of excitement and expectation ran through the crowd, for it was evident that here were some races to see. And races they were! When the final flag went up, it pulled two ’60 Pontiacs out of the chute on a dash for pay dirt. The Chrondek timers were stopped by Jim Wangers of Detroit in 14.15 seconds to register the win and title of Mr. Stock Eliminator. The Mallory Electric Corp. provided the beautiful trophy presented to Wangers for his win.”
Yes, that would be the same Jim Wangers who, working for Pontiac’s ad agency, helped to shape the brand’s performance image and launch the GTO, the Judge and the first-generation Firebirds.