1 December 2011

Drag Racing History - Pure Hell

Pure Hell AA/FA

For the uninitiated, Rich Guasco built (and still owns) one of the most famous Fuel Altered class dragster of all time - Pure hell.
Guasco is the only hot rodder in history to win the America’s Most Beautiful Roadster crown with both a show and competition entry. His purple 1929 roadster won the AMBR in 1961, which he followed up a year later with a front-engined top fuel dragster that took home the 9-foot Oakland trophy the following year in 1962.

Guasco also drove dragsters and raced competitively from 1951 through to January 1963, when an accident at Northern California’s Fremont drag strip nearly took his life.
Rich was running a front engine dragster at Fremont when the rear axle blew up. In those days, a front-engined rail was either a “legs under” or “legs over” car - meaning that the driver either sat with his a*se on top of the axle housing or the housing sat in his lap – neither of which are smart places to be if something in that axle breaks loose. When exactly that happened to Rich, the once-stationary aluminium axle housing started spinning as fast as the wheels were turning. And they were turning pretty fast in mid-pass down the track. The accident just about vaporised Rich’s hips and made quick work of some fairly vital organs.

In early unpainted guise, location unknown
But, that accident didn’t seem to do much more than give Rich some time on his back to think about his next dragster. The next year, he called on young fabricator, Pete Ogden, to build a 92-inch wheelbase chassis for a Bantam-bodied racer to campaign in the newly minted AA/FA class. The thing ran like a scalded cat well into the eights with not much tinkering. “Ogden tells me that he said, ‘Guass, that car is pure hell – you ought a name it that.’ But y’know, I used to say that damn near everything was ‘pure hell’ back then,” Rich remembers about the naming of his new car.

SIDENOTE 1: in case some of you are wondering what the hell (no pun intended) a 'Bantam' is, it's an Austin Bantam roadster body; here's some Bantams in their virgin guise:

Anyway, Pure Hell was born and Rich was going to drive it. Because of his injuries, he had to be helped in and out of the car, but he was determined as he was a drag racer, that was all there was to it. The claustrophobic cockpit of a Fuel Altered soon took its toll on his body, though, and Dale “The Snail” Emery was tapped to pilot Pure Hell for the rest of its glorious career.

Dale "the Snail" Emery, current NHRA Museum Boardmember Steve Gibbs and an unknown track operator. Photo courtesy of Greg Sharp Collection

Emery and Rich Guasco

The first version (you can tell by the fuel tank, and the lettering on the tonneau cover), small block Chevy powered, transverse leaf spring up front. Here's Emery at the helm, at Irwindale Raceway.

In this guise, Pure Hell was the first Fuel Altered to over 180 mph and under 8.50 seconds.  It held speed and ET records at one time or another at every strip it has ever run, with the exception of Orange County. There, Pure Hell 'only' held the speed record. It wasn’t all success though; the car lived up to it’s name.

It took off and ended up upside down in a ditch at Fremont.

The steering wheel came off, and Emery was powerless to control it. It had rained pretty heavily the preceding days and this ditch was full of water.
When Emery was interviewed years later, he said it was pretty lonely upside down there in this ditch; his face mask was full of water and he couldn't breathe. He said he was wondering whether to hold his breath a bit longer, or start breathing water! He finally kicked out the floor pan and was able to get out.
The worst thing that happened was that the ambulance attendant kept trying to tug his helmet off, not realising that the strap had to be undone. Dale's reported to have said "I thought he was gonna tug my head off!" Finally Tony Del Rio (who painted the car in it's various incarnations) slugged the ambulance attendant, and cut the strap on Dale's helmet.

SIDENOTE 2: Everytime I look at Pure hell's launch pics, like this, for example:

I thought 'Did this car ihelp Ed Roth model his famous 'balls-out racer' cartoons? One of the inspirations, surely.

A rare stationary shot of the "Pure Hell" in it's second incarnation.
Let me define "incarnation" as it applies to Pure Hell. As with most of the cars in this series so far, Pure Hell was a constantly evolving test bed for the hottest new parts in the quest for faster times and speeds. The Pure Hell roadster ran the same chassis, from 1964 through to 1969. The coil-over shock set-up was installed after the Fremont drainage ditch episode, but it was still the same frame even after the Chrysler Hemi went in.

At Stardust International Raceway, now with the coil-sprung front end:

Racing it's nemesis, Pure Heaven. Heaven will wait for now...

At the '68 Winter Nationals, after switching to the Hemi, Pure Hell set the speed record at 207mph. The car's best speed was 218mph and the best ET was 7.27 during match-race competition. Dale Emery was known for his Popeye-like forearms and his breathtaking, wheel standing, tyre smoking runs behind the steering wheel of Pure Hell. The car gained national and international fame and is still considered one of drag racing’s most famous cars ever.
The wild and woolly Fuel Altered class was finally replaced by the Funny Car era in the early Seventies and Rich followed suit. Guasco went on to field a long series of “Pure Hell” Funny Cars in the 1970s culminating in an NHRA National event win at the 1971 Spring Nationals in Columbus, Ohio with Dave Bebe doing the driving. Richard Tharp, Pat Foster, Elwin Carlson were others who drove Guasco’s Funny Cars (more to come later in the series).

But the little Bantam digger survived and the original Pure Hell was restored and debuted in 1992 with old friend Larry Huff behind the wheel for the Goodguys vintage drag races. When handling problems persisted, Guasco had friend Dave Uyehara build a modern day version of Pure Hell, which debuted in 1994. The car was initially campaigned on an exhibition basis. The roadster was then entered in many nostalgia top fuel shows, some of which Huff and Guasco wound up winning. The newer, sleeker Pure Hell altered ran a best of 6.32 @ 238mph.

Guasco scratched the racing bug for good in 2000, focusing his attention on street rods and hot rods. His original AMBR winning 1929 roadster was fully restored for the 50th Grand National roadster show (which Rich proudly says has run 114mph in the quarter mile!), a chopped ’40 Ford, ’32 Five Window Coupe, ’51 Ford Victoria, ’56 Ford Thunderbird and a ’39 Coupe. Just like the front wheels of Pure Hell, you just can't keep Rich Guasco down.
With thanks to all sources concerned for the info.

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