By Drew Hardin
Photo Courtesy Eric Rickman, Petersen Publishing Company Archive
Top Eliminator, Pocatello, Idaho 1955
In 1954, Wally Parks—who at the time was in charge of both the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and Hot Rod—dispatched a small crew of men to cross the country. Their goal: Promote the relatively new sport of organized drag racing—the safe, NHRA way—by working with local car clubs to put on races. They towed a small travel trailer full of everything they’d need for the event, from timing equipment and a P.A. system to trophies.
Riding with the NHRA crew was Petersen Publishing Company photographer Eric Rickman. His job was to record each race and then mail his film (often with tape-recorded details of the event) back to Parks so that Hot Rod could publish stories on each of the Safari’s stops.
It was a brilliant one-two promotional punch by Parks. He not only spread the word firsthand to those grassroots club members building hot rods and rails but also planted the seed among countless more magazine readers who would read about those fast cars and think, “I could do that!”
The 1954 Drag Safari made 10 stops. The next year’s itinerary almost doubled to 17 and included the very first NHRA Nationals in Great Bend, Kansas. Stop number five, Pocatello, Idaho, was the only repeat location from the previous year, and it was actually a last-minute addition when a planned Utah venue fell through.
“Due to the late announcement, total entries were not up to the usual figures, but the event was nonetheless colorful,” Hot Rod said in its September 1955 coverage of the race. Most of the entries were local, though a strong contingent of racers came from Salt Lake City, and a few had followed the Safari all the way from Southern California.
The meet’s class winner for Top Eliminator, Dragster, and also the top speed winner, was Salt Lake’s Charles Sugden. His Mercury Flathead-powered dragster, “a real rail,” as the magazine described it, hit 113.63 mph that June day. Rickman was there with his camera to get Sugden accepting his Top Eliminator trophy from “Miss Carol Pugmier, a native daughter of Pocatello. Other members of crew in background hold additional trophies won by Sugden dragster.”