My good friend Gery Conover was the best pal I had who had remained thoroughly grounded. Gery had goals, worked hard, good student, great guy. But, he had a series of incredibly slick hot rods, crowned by a Caddy powered, ’39 Ford convertible, in black, that was absolutely superb; one of the very best hot rods I’ve ever seen to this day. Gery enjoyed his car, kept it beautifully, and occasionally with no fuss whatsoever, would blow a challenging wise-guy straight into the weeds.
Bill Jellett had Jack Kulp build him a terrific ’48 Ford Club coupe with a wicked Olds Rocket engine. It was close to stock appearing. Billy impeccably maintained his hot rod as one might care for a fine polo pony. It was damn useful as a street weapon, and a pleasure for him to drive, but he didn’t flaunt it. He was a good student and well behaved.
It was an exceedingly difficult time, and I learned many lessons in diplomatic behavior, to say nothing of becoming a master at walking on eggs, and eating vast quantities of Humble Pie.
Somehow my racing season, though potentially crippled, carried on, and we continued winning everywhere we went that Tom Conte didn’t go. As the summer wore on, we saw less of Tom at the tracks. He was in the tomato packing business, and the late summer was his busiest period, what with the harvest and canning season. We continued to develop my ‘bird with small but significant changes.
I was still pretty much one of the local hot dogs of the Road, but there were some amazing new cars coming along. “Chicken” Cox, over in Wyndmoor had bought himself a nearly new, dark green, very stately Chrysler New Yorker 4 door sedan equipped with the new Hemi engine and the newfangled air conditioning! He proceeded to have Frank Bash install twin McCulloch superchargers, headers, and a cam. “Chicken’s” big Chrysler was a “gathering storm,” and one of the very first double blower setups done in the east. “Chicken” loved taking on guys on the “new” Pennsylvania Turnpike which had been recently opened through to our eastern Pennsylvania area. From 80 MPH on up “Chicken” was gone. That Chrysler was an enormously capable high speed runner.
Two brothers turned up near our neighborhood. Dick Graves and his brother Chan from Laverock both had hot rods. Dick had a rapid ’40 Ford coupe with Caddy power, and Chan had a ’56 Ford Fairlane 2 door, 312 power, blown, pumping through 3 carbs and very fast.
One evening Chan and I had gone out for a ride in his ’56 and we had just come onto the Pennsylvania turnpike at Willow Grove, headed west toward Ft. Washington. The minute we hit the pike Chan nailed it. By the time we reached the first bend in the turnpike, we had to be running well over 100MPH. Chan began to steer into the slight curve and the back end started to come around. I had just finished noticing that Chan’s new ‘56 Ford was equipped with Ford’s new “safety’ options package, including seat belts, padded dash, visors, etc. But, of course, being hot rod guys we weren’t having any of that sissy stuff. We were far too tough for safety. That stuff was for sissies. Neither of us had our seat belt fastened! The back end of the Ford slid out a bit further, and I glanced over at Chan and his expression was devoid of any apprehension. He began to feed opposite lock into the drift and steered his way out of it, finally fixing me with one of his well known grins, and neither of us said a word.
STREET RACING FLOURISHES. . .
In spite of the newly sanctioned eastern dragstrips, street racing flourished. During the summer of ’56 we occasionally heard of episodes of really wild street racing in the rough industrial area of north Philadelphia.
One July night, we were told to check out a certain remote industrial section of North Philadelphia. Jules Donofry was up for it and well after dark we took off to see if we could find the racing venue. It wasn’t easy to find, but when we got there, there was some heavy duty, clandestine drag racing going on.
And, it turned out, a couple of the really big dogs out of Bash’s shop were there running late at night on deserted, very dark, wide streets. A lot of the cars that night were true cutting edge drag racing cars. In addition to the
guys we did know, there were many others whom, we’d never seen. They were all deadly serious drag racers.
The “track” (street) was several lanes wide for the major truck traffic during the day. For the racing late at night the “track” was lit by the headlamps of the spectator cars on either side of the “track.” A challenger would appear out of the darkness at the head of the racing area and then another runner would join the challenger at “the line.” Occasionally, three would line up, and they’d rip off a run.
Fred Allen was “the Dean” of the Germantown club, known as “The Satan’s” and he showed up that night with a newly built, utterly spectacular ’32 Ford 5 window highboy coupe with a highly worked Chrysler Hemi, four Stromberg 97’s and short wide open side exhausts. It was aptly named the “Devil Deuce.” There was a constant edge of fear that night, in the pitch black industrial area. We were certain the Philly cops would descend on us at any second. Suddenly, right behind me, Freddy Allen lit up that “Devil Deuce.” Well, I’ll tell you, along with my edginess, the explosive sound of that killer hemi scared me straight up in the air. I turned back and that savage machine was shaking the ground. Fred was running a fuel mixture and flames were shooting out of the exhausts. The noise was crippling. None of us had ever heard an engine like that. Ever! Everybody stepped back, way back.
Freddy slowly eased the ‘32 up to the line. He waited. No one came out of the darkness to challenge Fred Allen. The glow from the exhaust flames was enough to show “Professor” Fred Allen peering through his eyeglasses, just quietly going through his warm up. Finally he closed the coupe door, lined himself up and with no takers, and just exploded down the street, then he killed it, and there was utter silence. Fred Allen had just taken Philadelphia drag racing to an entirely new level. That was the grand finale for the evening. Scarcely a soul uttered a word. Everyone just quietly went home.
As that late night closed, I was amazed by the sheer number of cars that had gathered for those street races in the summer of 1956, and the fact that we were rarely hassled by the police.
(Father’s Day weekend, 2007: Our gang was in LA for the annual LA Roadsters show, and we stopped to tour the always fantastic NHRA Museum. Under the auspices of the legendary Greg Sharp, every visit to this superb museum is a joy. As we were leaving the lobby, Greg said to me: “Kirk, what do you think? . . . and he nodded at me to turn around.
I turned and there was Freddie Allen’s ’32 highboy “Devil Deuce” coupe superbly recreated by the great hot rodder, Jim Jard. It was sitting right there, front and center, in the lobby of the NHRA Museum. I had walked right past it.Well, talk about being pulled up short. . . What a moment! I won’t try to relate every emotion that ran through me, but it was a damn special time.)
In the 50s, Al Crevarro was always right there with Freddy Allen. Almost any photo of Freddy other than on the track you’d find “Little Al” Crevarro right there at Freddie’s side. Al drove an immaculate Cadillac powered ’40 Ford pick-up, finished in a beautiful pale metallic gold. He had built the entire hot rod by himself.
“Little Al” was one of the pioneer pinstripers of the era in Philadelphia, soon to be followed by three Philadelphia legends who still stripe today; Al Anderson, Ed Foody, and Larry Schoppett. Crevarro painted the amazing Devil’s face for the ‘32 grille blank out Surface.
THE TWO “KILLER” VENUES
The two most outrageous street racing venues though, were Route 72 in central New Jersey and Northwestern Avenue, just west of Chestnut Hill on the very edge of the Philadelphia city limits. What made these highways so flagrant? Well to start with the guys racing on them would, uh, actually
close those roads to all traffic! Period. Anyone wanting or needing to use those streets for any legitimate purpose would simply have to wait a bit.
Once the hot rodders had closed the roads, they generally would re-open them periodically for the “real people” to pass. The “racing” was always very late at night, thus traffic didn’t pose much of a problem. Still it was insanely “rude” if nothing else!
(Cell phones, of course, didn’t exist . . .)
Of the two venues, Route 72 in New Jersey was by far the most bizarre use of a public highway I’d ever seen. If you look at a roadmap of New Jersey, you’ll see that in the middle of the state, headed east to the Jersey shore, you’d turn off Route 70 onto Route 72 east toward Barnegat and Beach Haven. On Route 72, there was a very long, lonely stretch of dead straight, two lane concrete highway that ran virtually without a curve for over 20 miles!
Near the point where New Jersey State Route 554 split off, an overhead bridge for the Jersey Central Railroad spanned the highway. On certain late nights, well after the summer beach season had passed, the area around the railway bridge would become “race central.” The scrub pine all around the bridge served as the pit area. All knowledge of any racing on 72 was spread by word of mouth. No internet, no cell phones. Still, racers came from New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and further for these high speed runs!
The first time I went, I was driven down to the “event” by Julie Donofry to spectate. I never dreamed it would amount to anything. It was a long desolate ride getting there, but when we did, Holy Cow!
We slowed near the Jersey Central Railroad bridge. A flashlight blinked at us. I forget whose car we were in, but it was enough of a rod that we were ushered off the road and into the dunes. There were cars all over the place, some being tinkered with, others just waiting to race.
Each “run” consisted of two cars driving back west on Route 72, six miles to an abandoned road house parking lot, then turning back east and stopping before launching from a standing start.
This is where it gets nuts. At the “race central” bridge someone would “listen” for the approaching racing cars and step out into the road to make sure the approaching competitors had feathered single file into the eastbound lane to avoid hitting any innocent vehicles cars that had been courteously detained in the westbound lane a quarter mile up the Route 72! “Bad accident up there” the detainees were told each time as they soon watched the competitors’ rifle past them in the eastbound lane!
Often though, these races would lose some of their impact as the two “racing” cars would launch fiercely from the old roadhouse and would go at it hammer and tong. But over the course of 6 miles almost always a winner would have been firmly established. After a mile or two a clear winner would gain a substantial lead and then stretch it out even further before the “winner” tore under the bridge, alone and the straggler generally came well after the “winner”. As a result there generally was not a tremendous sense of heated battle at the finish line. Still hundreds of rodders came from everywhere to run that strip of road.
The following summer, we heard that the New Jersey State Police had swept in there one early spring night with 3 school buses in tow and took away “at least 200 guys”, so went the tale.
Actually, I’ve heard various iterations of the same “captured” tale for several years!
The year that the racers were actually caught, the result did knock the venue out for several weeks, but the racers were back at it again pretty quickly. In later years “the Stateys” turned up the heat, and pretty much broke the back of street racing on Route 72 in central Jersey.
(I’ll just bet some hot rodders today, still exercise that bit of highway occasionally. . .)
NORTHWESTERN AVENUE, CHESTNUT HILL, PENNSYLVANIA
Located within Philadelphia County “Northwestern” was an altogether different deal. Being just inside the city limits in the Chestnut Hill area, Northwestern Avenue was merely 2.3 miles in length, but straight as a rail stretching between two rural roads . . . no cross streets at all. It was just the right length of road for getting off a serious standing start race and being able to run out to your top speed and still have enough road left to get it all gathered up again.
Those of us who hung out at the Hill Diner liked running on Northwestern as it was less than three miles from the Diner. Running off a 2 car heat required at least 4 cars heading down there. Why? Well, there were about a dozen homes on Northwestern Avenue. Nice suburban Colonials, Cape Cods, that sort of thing. Quiet neighborhood, not much going on back then, with many of the homeowners asleep by 10 PM, and Hell, we never took over the damn street till about 11 or later.
Two cars would be needed to block traffic at either end of the Avenue. Purely for neighborhood protection purposes, you see . . . As a safety conscious group, we were merely shutting the street down till the race was run off.
More often than not lots of cars would come down to spectate these events by backing into the resident’s driveways, as the road was a tight 2 lanes! Because this flat straight road was on the far border of 2 police jurisdictions neither police force really bothered us . . . for a while . . .
Then the Philadelphia police decided it might be a good idea to respond in some fashion to the heretofore totally bullied residents. We always got away. There were too many of us, and the Philly cops didn’t know the back roads of the bordering townships the way we hoodlums did.
CONSIDERING THE NHRA NATIONALS 1956
Toward the end of July in that summer of ’56 we began to hear about something called the “National Championship Drag Races.” They were being held under the auspices of the National Hot Rod Association.
The event was to be run in Kansas City, Missouri over the Labor Day holiday. In fact it was the second championship event of its kind, the first “Nationals” having been run in 1955 in Great Bend, Kansas.
As summer wound down, I continued to see blurbs about the event in the magazines. The NHRA was establishing a number of locations around the country where you could apply for entry in these National Championship drag races.
A preliminary tech inspection would be completed at various designated centers. In Philadelphia, the named NHRA location was “our” Speed Shop, Frank A. Bash in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.
I didn’t think too much about it. I mean really, Kansas City? That had to be the falling off point didn’t it? For an 18 year old that would be an insane idea, yes? Then my racing mentor made me reconsider the adventure; Tom Conte took me aside one evening and said: “Kirk, I can’t go out there to Kansas City because of the tomato canning season, but you should. Between you and I we’ve got a couple of very quick Thunderbirds, and one of us should go out there to show them just how quick we are, and how well we can build hot rods in Philly. So Kirk, whatever it takes; get out there and do some racin’”.
Jules Donofry and Andy McNally were definitely on for it. They’d always jump in that blown ’34 of theirs at the drop of a hat to race anybody, anywhere, anytime. Fred Allen and Al Crevarro would be there with Freddie’s wicked ’32 five window. Well OK, if they were going, I’d go too. Hell, they were out of High School; it would be like going out there with “grownups”, wouldn’t it?
Late in July we were notified that anyone in the Philadelphia area who wanted to post an entry for the “2nd Annual NHRA National Championship Drags” in Kansas City, Missouri was to come down to Bash’s shop on a Thursday evening where an NHRA tech inspector would yea or nay your potential entry.
I got there about 7PM and Donofry and McNally were already there, with their blown ’34. Just as I pulled in, the skies opened up and there was a typical summer evening thunderstorm. We both cleared “Pre-tech” without a problem. As usual, because of my age, I was eyed strangely by the NHRA officials; . . . “Is your Dad going with you?”
When the rain let up, we all left Bash’s headed for the diner at the top of Chestnut Hill. We were driving on the Lincoln Drive, a winding four lane Parkway that wends its way through Germantown and Mt Airy, on its way toward Chestnut Hill.
The traffic light turned red at Green Street just as I reached the intersection. Julie Donofry and Andy McNally eased up along the inside lane. Donofry was at the wheel. We were side by side. Julie looked over at me with that wicked Irish smile of his that as much as said, “might as well run off a quick ‘heat’ here,” before the next intersection, where a serious sweeping turn bore around to the left. The light changed and Donofry, launched the ‘34 hard on the still wet slick macadam. Immediately, his back end started to come around, and I pulled out of the throttle instantly, as I thought; “that lunatic’s going to take me out.” By the time Jules and Andy reached the sweeper turn they were easily going 75-80 MPH.
They had totally overlooked the fact that their ’34 had welded spider gears, which locked the rear and eliminated the differential aspect entirely. When Julie began to steer into the turn at Carpenter Lane, the car continued to travel in an arrow straight fashion on the rain slick surface, straight into a transformer pole with the left front corner of the ’34 sedan.
The pole snapped; wires and sparks flew like the fourth of July. The ’34 Ford snapped back from the impact, high in the air. It looked like it flew for 20 feet, bounced viciously, but stayed upright.
“Chicken” Cox was right behind us in his big twin blower Chrysler New Yorker. We all yanked to a halt, and ran to the steaming wreck, trying to stay off the wires that had fallen, and, of course, fearing the worst. Both of them were functional, but McNally was sure he’d broken his left leg.
“Chicken’s” big Chrysler was pressed into ambulance service, as we quickly loaded Andy into the roomy Sedan for a double supercharged ride to The Chestnut Hill Hospital, which was just down the Pike from our haunt, the Hill Diner. I hastily followed in the Thunderbird. As we streaked away, a crowd was gathering amid all the rubble, the continuing spark show, and the hugely steaming ’34 Ford.
(What’s that? Oh, you’re asking about leaving the scene of an accident? Well, we assessed the entire spectacle, which included: speeding, reckless driving, serious property damage, personal injury, a destroyed steaming, hot rod etc., etc. and decided that it would be most prudent to abandon the “scene” with all due haste. . .)
“Chicken” drove rapidly for the Emergency room. Once there, McNally was quickly diagnosed with a broken leg and was on his way “upstairs for x-rays”.
Somehow Andy was left in the hallway on a gurney for what the rest of us felt was too long a time. Donofry commandeered the gurney and started tearing through the halls toward the elevators, with the rest of us trailing behind. Someone ran ahead to the elevator bank, and hailed a car, as the x-ray department was on the second floor.
Just as we all roared up to the elevator, the doors sprang open, and Jules started to wheel Andy in . . . But wait, only the bottom half of the elevator car was there, and the front two wheels lurched over the edge of the
elevator shaft; the floor of the elevator car appeared perfectly poised to cleanly scrape McNally straight off the gurney! The gurney tilted into the elevator shaft at a precarious angle, and Andy was nearly wiped off the table, so to speak! "Donofry, godamnit! . . . Get the fuck out of here! All of you get the hell away from me, you idiots.”
None of us laughed until we were well clear of the hospital. By the time we reached the Hill Diner, everyone there knew about the wreck, and we were celebrities. By the time we left the diner, the story was thoroughly embellished.
“They were easy goin’ over 130 when they hit that pole” . . .
“Donofry just missed an old couple crossin’ Lincoln Drive” . . .
“White spun onto a guy’s lawn on Carpenter Lane” . . .
The very next day the police caught up with everybody, and Jules got a bill from Philadelphia Electric for $75 for the pole! Andy’s leg? It healed easily, but the ’34 went into the history books.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Coming Next . . . “The Edgy Path to the 1956 NHRA Nationals”
Chapter 6 – April 12, 2016
The Devil Duece / Fred Allen standing, elbow on hood.