3 December 2012

Drag Racing History - The Old Black Studebaker

The Car that started the “Gasser Wars” - Junior Thompson's 1941 Studebaker B/GS

Junior Thompson has been into racing for almost 50 years. He got his start when he was about 17 in 1953. He was living in Downey, California when he and his brothers began racing. His first car was a 1940 Ford convertible that had a chopped Carson top and a hot flathead; a 1950 Ford followed.
But, his next car is the star of this story: a 1941 Studebaker with a small block Chevy with a McCullough supercharger. This car seems to be the one that got him hooked for good.

“This car was the first of a series of Gassers and Funny Cars campaigned by Junior Thompson over many years. This car won “Little Eliminator” in the first U.S. Nationals in Oklahoma City in 1958. It ran every weekend at Lions Drag Strip, Pomona, Santa Ana and many other drag strips. This car was raced and beat the best of the gassers during the ‘Golden Age of Drag Racing’, including Doug Cook, Tim Woods, Pitman & Edwards, Ed Weddle, Dick Harryman, Howard Johansen and many others.”
- As told by owner/builder/restorer Sonny Messner

Head to head with Doug Cook, later of Stone/Woods/Cook fame
It has long been debated about how the “Gasser Wars” began. Let’s provide evidence for an important piece of drag racing history. In the late '50s, Ed Iskenderian and all the other cam grinders like Engle and Howard were running competitive ads in Drag News. A quote from Iskenderian taken from an ad in Drag News July 1958 page 7 entitled, “The First Race that started the Gasser Wars between Isky & Howard Cams - July 6, 1958.” In the ad it stated:
“The ‘King’ Gets Dethroned. Sunday, July 6, was a rough day for self-proclaimed royalty at the 6th Annual So. California Championship held at Pomona, as the heralded ‘King of the Blowers’ ended a brief one week reign and blew a 2 car-length decision to Junior Thompson of Speed Engineering, Long Beach.  In racking up his decisive win Thompson registered a Top time of 108.50 mph and an ET of 12.50 sec. Thompson really goes on gas with his supercharged Chevy V8, powered by Isky Cam and Engineering Kit.”

There are the facts. Junior was running an Isky 505 cam in a ’41 Studebaker, so the Iskenderian ad showed Junior triumphing over Doug Cook, who was running a Howard cam in his ‘37 Chevy coupe with the newly popular Chevy 265 ci small-block against Junior’s B/Gas black Studebaker, which was also running the new Chevrolet V8. The rest is history, right on down to the battles that involved Big John Mazmanian, Stone-Woods-Cook and K.S. Pittman, and many more. Once the Gasser Wars began Junior states, “Several of us would travel together throughout the country and challenge the locals.  We went everywhere.

How did Sonny recreate this important celebrated race car?  As told by Junior Thompson, “Sonny had me busy for months asking questions, getting details and old photos to do a full-restoration. What a tribute for Junior to have an old friend, Sonny Messner, who actually ‘wrenched’ on this car in the old days do this flawless recreation; to this day they are good friends and talk regularly.  In fact Junior and his son Tommy Thompson did all the engine work on the blown & injected small block Chevy to install in this 1941 Studebaker 4-door sedan.

About that hole in the bonnet: The Drag papers reported that a blower piece had gone through the bonnet. It became an important trademark of the car as the story spread. Junior even had a painter do some flames, on the hood, around the tear hole. However the truth, recalled by Junior, is probably more astonishing. Eddie Thompson (Junior’s older brother) was coming back from a run down the track in the car, in the return lane. At the same time Junior was making an actual run down the strip in a ’55 Chevy B/Gasser and blew a clutch. To everyone’s amazement some of the debris flew in the air and into the return lane, where it went into the hood of the ’41 Studebaker Eddie was driving. “All the Drag papers got it wrong.”  Junior said, “We just decided to go with the story over time, why fight it.”

A quote from Don Burdge of Historic Race Car Forum, which really sums up how early drag cars were built by guys who were really pioneers in their field:
"Custom fabrication? Yeah, but not how you'd define the word these days. For the later generations who have the best engineered parts available and high-tech fabrication shops available), ingenuity is a thing of the past; they just shop around and buy what they need. Talk about creativity in the old days, look at the tranny-tunnel cover, wow now there is some tuff bullet-proof installation, or is it???  As we looking closer we see that the cover is hand cut sheet metal (thin gauge) with Philips screws and paw prints from those greasy hands all over?  Now people that’s real-racing! Wouldn’t you agree?

How about the blower-hole in the hood, custom by George Barris you ask? Maybe not, how about custom by metal-shears held by Eddie, Sonny, Junior or whoever else might have been standing around and offered a helping hand. And what about that chassis, is that one of Dragmaster’s latest? How about those exhausts professionally bended on a mandrel? And that steering wheel must be one of those Titanium speciality wheels? Wrong. Chassis by Studebaker, steering wheel by Studebaker and exhausts by a bunch of guys welding exhausts pipe pieces together. Ingenuity was the name of the game."
You really get an idea looking at these pics of how these early cars were built to race, first and foremost. Function over form.

The current owner, Sonny Messner is now moving onto other projects and selling this beautiful piece of Gasser War’s history. Sonny wrenched with Junior and Eddie in there early heyday and then moved over to wrench with 'Big Daddy' Don Garlits. Today, Sonny after 40 years of bugging Don, now owns the original Swamp Rat III, Garlit’s first custom frame car.

The '41 Studebaker sedan that Sonny Messner built is a copy of Junior Thompson's first Gasser, but the guy seen below priming its injector is the real deal. At age 76, Junior still builds Hemis for loyal customers, sells engine parts, and produces memorabilia. Respect due.

With thanks to all sources concerned for the raw info.

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